Smoking related diseases are the number one cause of death in African-Americans

Lawrence Jones started smoking Kool Menthols when he was playing Rhythm and Blues in the ‘70s, as a way of fitting in with his bandmates and the in crowd at the clubs where he played.

The band broke up after a few years, but the cigarettes remained. Instead of being a way to look sophisticated, smoking became a means for Jones to relax and, he says, to feel he was “in control of whatever the situation might be.”

And smoking remained a constant in his life through hardship, when his baby daughter died of a brain tumor, when his two marriages dissolved, and when he watched cancer slowly kill the woman he loved. He relied on cigarettes to get through the day, needing one before he brushed his teeth in the morning and another with his daily cup of coffee –- and says he was “difficult to get along with” when he couldn’t smoke. And even though he saw the Surgeon General’s warning about the health risks of cigarettes on the side of each pack, “people don’t pay that any attention,” he said recently. “I had a 10-month-old daughter die from cancer and she never smoked a cigarette in her life.”

Jones’ history -– of being drawn in by the seeming glamour of cigarettes as a youth and then becoming physically and mentally addicted to them as he grew older –- is similar to that of many smokers, and in particular African-American smokers, whom I’ve seen over the years as a primary care doctor. About one in four African-American men smoke, and smoking-related illnesses — including lung and throat cancer, heart disease and emphysema — are the number one cause of death in the African-American community, killing more than 47,000 black Americans each year. Tobacco companies continue to market menthol cigarettes heavily in the black community, through ads showing attractive young people and through sponsorship of concerts and other cultural events.

Happily, Jones’ story also demonstrates that even people who have smoked for decades can stop. At age 55, while sitting in a clinic examining room, he spotted a poster explaining how his health would improve after quitting. His doctor referred him to a weekly stop smoking class, and over the next four weeks, under the guidance of a counselor and with the support of a friend, he gradually tapered down his cigarettes from 14 a day to none. It now has been more than two months since his last cigarette, and, though he continues to rely on nicotine replacement patches, he is determined never to smoke again. “I don’t have any runs left,” he said. “I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

“I have two beautiful grandkids that I’d like to see grow up,” he added. “I don’t want my family to have the pain and agony of seeing me deteriorate.”

Since quitting, he has noticed positive physical changes. He used to get winded walking a block; now he is able to walk several blocks without any problems. Smoking also used to dull his sense of smell and his ability to taste food; now, he says, he is regaining those senses and no longer has to smother his food with salt to give it taste –- “a gift,” he says, since salt worsens his high blood pressure. His family members tell him that his complexion looks much better. He has also saved money, and recently was able to buy an $80 pair of Stacy Adams shoes with the money he stashed in a jar whenever he got the urge to buy a pack of cigarettes.

Stopping a decades-long habit –- and breaking the physical and psychological addiction of tobacco –- was extremely tough for Jones, just as it is for most smokers. But he is optimistic that he will succeed.

Erin Marcus is an internal medicine physician and writes at New America Media.

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