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Q&A: The importance of addressing tobacco use among Hispanic/Latino communities

Despite generally lower rates of adult smoking, more than 43,000 Hispanic/Latino Americans are diagnosed with a tobacco-related cancer each year and more than 18,000 die as a result. Tobacco use among Hispanic/Latino youth is also cause for even greater concern.

Current use of any tobacco product was 17.2% among Hispanic middle and high school students in 2020, versus 13.2% for non-Hispanic Black and 10.1% for non-Hispanic students of other races. E-cigarettes are the most commonly used tobacco product among Hispanic/Latino high school students (23.2%) and middle school students (13.1%), according to 2020 data.

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Truth Initiative spoke with former truth Ambassador and Youth Board Liaison at Truth Initiative, Lex Martinez, and President and CEO at National Alliance for Hispanic Health, Dr. Jane Delgado, to gain insight on tobacco use in the community and why it’s important to address it.

These interviews, conducted separately, have been lightly edited for clarity.

Q: Tobacco companies have a history of targeting racial and ethnic minorities, including the Hispanic/Latino community. Why do you think it’s important to treat tobacco use as both a public health and a social justice issue?

Lex: Treating tobacco use as both as a public health and social justice issue is how I got into activism at such a young age. It’s important to view it this way because Big Tobacco has put billions of dollars into their marketing to influence individuals to use their products and further agitating some of the health concerns that Hispanic/Latino communities already have, like heart disease and COPD.

Dr. Delgado: The most important thing is that while there are lower rates of Hispanic/Latino adult cigarette use, our Hispanic/Latino youth are using more e-cigarette products. That we were lower users in the past was great, but the industry is targeting young people, which includes Hispanic youth, to try to get them to use tobacco products.

Q: What should people know about tobacco use among the Hispanic/Latino community, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Lex: Tobacco use remains prevalent in our community. There are plenty of individuals in our community who are essential workers in industries like construction, agriculture, and hospitality and are having to find ways to cope. COVID-19 has really agitated our community and the people that I see day-to-day continue to use tobacco as a coping mechanism.

Q: How can activism help to address tobacco use in Hispanic/Latino communities?

Lex: Activism helps to equip young adults and officials to go against Big Tobacco and reverse the negative outcomes they’ve contributed to.

Activism is priceless, especially when tackling issues of tobacco use. Powerful activism engages the young generation and future generations to stand up for themselves and remove the deadly grip that Big Tobacco has had in their communities. It can help put new policies into place and allow young people to put a piece of themselves in whatever they want to change.

Dr. Delgado: It’s all about marketing. When studies show that the Hispanic/Latino community are low users, it’s possible that the tobacco industry could see that as an opportunity to make people change their behavior. This generation is very engaged in social justice issues and if they see the issue of targeted marketing by the tobacco industry in the context of a social injustice, perhaps they will ask themselves, "Why am I doing this?"

Q: What kind of strategies are important to implement when engaging with Hispanic/Latino communities to prevent or reduce the use of tobacco?

Lex: I think developing campaign messaging that connects with audiences that are marginalized is a valuable strategy. In order to engage with the Hispanic/Latino community, it needs to be personal.

During my time as a truth Ambassador and Youth Board Liaison at Truth Initiative, I remember seeing a video with a curly-haired woman standing right in front of a corner store serving facts about tobacco and how they’re targeting marginalized communities. It spoke to me because I saw myself in that person.

Dr. Delgado: The most important thing is to make sure the spokesperson, not necessarily a famous person, is someone who relates to the individual. The days of the big public relations campaign are gone. Messages need to be tailored to the individual, especially because young people, particularly, are very responsive to messaging tailored to them.