By Bree Tomlinson and Amyah Davis | Afro | Word In Black
(WIB) – East of Baltimore in Essex, Md., middle and high school kids gather after school around a small corner store one block away from Kenwood High School and Stemmers Run Middle School. Underneath the store sign, a banner highlights some of the staples for sale within – milk, candy, coffee, cigarettes and tobacco. The windows are plastered with advertisements, including a Marlboro cigarette ad to the left and a Juul vape ad to the right.
The store is one of many of its kind in Baltimore County, concentrated in low-income communities. Compared to higher-income Baltimore neighborhoods, low-income neighborhoods have nearly twice the concentration of tobacco retailers, according to a study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.
It’s part of a decades-old legacy of targeting by tobacco companies aimed at low-income, primarily Black and Brown communities and young people which continues to this day.
“It’s an all-encompassing group of people that were targeted to become the biggest users of these products, which really does harm to people,” said Kenneshia Williams, research manager of the Truth Initiative’s Schroeder Institute. The Truth Initiative is a nonprofit organization dedicated to giving young people facts about the dangers of tobacco and the tobacco industry.
Tobacco companies have historically targeted Black, Brown, LGBTQ+, veterans and other people with mental health issues by offering them menthol cigarettes, coupons to purchase tobacco products, and selling single cigarettes to make it easier to purchase them, Williams said.
This targeting is also aimed at youth. Almost 75 percent of U.S. middle and high school students said they’d been exposed to e-cigarette and tobacco advertisements from at least one source while doing regular daily activities like going to the movies or visiting a local store, according to the 2021 Youth Tobacco Survey.
In 2016, almost 17 percent of adolescents in Baltimore County were reported to have used tobacco products, and 9.8 percent of Maryland middle schoolers’ tobacco use in 2019 was reported to be by African Americans, according to the county health department.
Proximity, ease of access remain problem
Despite efforts to reduce youth tobacco use, and dropping rates of cigarette smoking, overall use of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes or vapes, remains disturbingly high. While peers are the biggest influence on whether young people smoke or vape, accessibility to tobacco products and proximity to retailers are also important.
According to a 2020 study by researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Washington University in St. Louis, tobacco retailers are concentrated in low-income areas. In Baltimore, there are five times more tobacco retailers per square mile in the lowest-income neighborhoods than in the highest-income neighborhoods.
Tobacco retailers are also everywhere: in Baltimore there are 63 times more tobacco retailers than McDonald’s restaurants and 66 times more than Starbucks locations. Because there are so many of them, they’re also easy to access, with 80 percent of city residents living within a half mile, or about a ten-minute walk, of a tobacco retailer, the report said.
In Baltimore, more than 87 percent of public schools are within 1,000 feet of a tobacco retailer. The retailer near Kenwood High School where students gather after school, called One Stop Convenience, is just at the edge of the school zone, for example.
Baltimore County 17-year-old Caius Bourgeois started smoking blunts (a cigar-like product that’s cheap, sold as singles, and offered in fruit flavors) at age 14 because his friends were into them.
“It was like two years ago and my friend just passed me a blunt. And I was like okay, I’ll hit it.’
]y friends get it from a gas station by my house. It’s pretty easy to get,” he said.
Although Maryland has succeeded in lowering youth tobacco use in the past, many retailers in Maryland sell tobacco products to youth illegally. In 2014, the CDC reported that just 37 percent of Maryland youth are asked to provide photo ID to purchase cigarettes, and nearly 70 percent of youth smokers report being able to purchase cigarettes illegally themselves or by getting an older friend to do it for them.
Misperceptions of harm drive e-cig use
While most youth today say they know that smoking cigarettes can be harmful, many underestimate the dangers and the potential long-term impacts of tobacco use. According to the 2021 Youth Tobacco Survey, about 15 to 20 percent of middle and high school students perceive e-cigarette use as causing little or no harm.
In addition to underestimating the risk of these products, many youth also believe, wrongly, that vaping reduces anxiety or stress. The most commonly cited reason youth give for continuing to use e-cigarettes is because they’re feeling anxious or stressed, according to the same tobacco survey.
Tobacco company advertising is often deliberately deceptive to youth, encouraging them to think tobacco use reduces stress, said Williams of the Truth Initiative.
“I know that stress is a major reason why people turn to these products,” she said.
Gianna Darville, a youth board liaison for the Truth initiative said, “A lot of young people in particular are going to vaping, because it’s one of those things that is supposed to or is being framed as something that can help with your mental health, when in fact, it actually makes you feel worse.”
Zhyier Linton, a 17-year-old Baltimore County student, said she started smoking to help deal with family problems. “It relieves the stress that I’m taking… It helps me cope with my life troubles,” she said.
Zhyier said she thinks that tobacco use, particularly e-cigarettes, has gotten out of hand among young people. “There should be more rules on who’s getting sold these products,” she said.
Bree Tomlinson and Amyah Davis are rising seniors at Kenwood High School in Essex, Md. They reported and wrote this story during a Spring 2022 reporting workshop with Youthcast Media Group™ and with the assistance of YMG Content & Programs Director Brie Zeltner, a journalist formerly of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.