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Opinion | Move Michigan from laggard to leader in protecting kids from harms of tobacco

I remember at a young age, maybe 10, watching my parents smoke Salem and Camel cigarettes and thinking it was cool. It’s a time when your parents are your heroes. You want to grow up to be just like them, so you mimic some of the things they do.

That was me when it came to smoking cigarettes; prancing around the house pretending I had a cigarette between my two fingers and puffing away. My mom was very “no-nonsense.” One day she said, “So, you think smoking is cute? Well, sit down right here in front of me.” My mother lit a cigarette and handed it to me. “Go ahead,” she said. I inhaled. The smoke burned my throat, and I started coughing. I thought I was going to die! Once I recovered, I told my mother that smoking was not for me. To this day, I have never had the desire to try it again.

Alexis Dye headshot
Alexis Dye is chairperson of the Michigan Black Leadership Advisory Council Health Committee

My mother did this because she did not want her children to become addicted to menthol cigarettes like she was. This was her way of scaring me straight. My younger brother was not as lucky. Like most who smoke, my brother started smoking Newport cigarettes in his early teens. Later in his life, my brother was receiving treatment for hip and back pain, unaware that the pain was from cancer that had already spread. His cancer was not detected until he received a brain scan after fainting. The scan revealed brain tumors which led to emergency surgery and his stage 4 diagnosis. I watched him battle lung cancer while caring for him in my home. I took him to his appointments, for tests, radiation, and eventually pain management. Cancer is unforgiving. 

Suffering from pain, headaches and visual impairment from the brain tumors, yet bravely fighting to live, my brother could not resist the need for a cigarette. A sign of real addiction to menthol. My eyes filled with tears every time he went outside to smoke. I also watched my “sister-in-love” fight lung cancer, experiencing extreme pain after a lifelong addiction to cigarettes. She was not aware she had cancer until it had spread. Doctors determined it had originated in her lungs. 

After years of smoking menthol cigarettes, my father was diagnosed with cardiovascular disease and passed away at 55. When my father passed away, my mother made a serious effort to stop smoking. Although she cut back on the number she smoked per day, she was never able to stop completely. 

My no-nonsense mother. My dear dad. My beloved friend. My only brother. Lives immeasurably impacted by menthol cigarettes, including mine. Tragically, my story is not uncommon. 

Menthol cigarettes were ubiquitous in my community. For decades, cigarette companies relentlessly targeted Black Americans with menthols by recruiting our icons as spokespeople, sponsoring music festivals, advertising in Black magazines and hosting events in our neighborhoods with free giveaways. Their efforts worked. Today, the vast majority of Black smokers smoke menthols, and tobacco use is the number-one cause of preventable death among Black Americans, claiming 45,000 Black lives every year.

The tobacco industry is not loosening their grip on us. In fact, they’re doubling down. In pursuit of their insatiable need for profits, they continue to sell mistruths to decision makers in Washington, D.C., and in state legislatures around the country. The Biden administration recently announced more delays in issuing a ban on menthol cigarettes due to industry-led and paid efforts to sustain menthol profits.

Despite evidence, years of advocacy, and strong support from Black civil rights, faith, public health, medical and other community organizations, federal action to end the sale of menthol cigarettes is again on hold. Menthol cigarettes are the only flavored cigarette on the market; other flavored cigarettes were banned years ago.

With federal action on ice, it is critical that our state elected officials step up and do the right thing. A comprehensive tobacco prevention bill package, including a bill to end the sale of all flavored tobacco products, is sitting in the Michigan Senate waiting for a hearing.

The Michigan Black Leadership Advisory Council (BLAC) already endorsed the bill package and urged Michigan Legislators to send it to the Governor’s desk. As the Chair of the BLAC Health Committee, I am reiterating our unequivocal support and our call to action. Time is running out. Let’s take measures into our own hands and move Michigan from a laggard to a leader in protecting all of Michigan’s kids from the harms of tobacco.

The economic, social and emotional toll of tobacco weighs heavy on my heart. Michigan families like mine have paid dearly in lost time and lost love. The good news is we can reverse this trend because we know what works. Today we are counting on our elected leaders to lead by example, prioritize Michigan’s kids over industry profit, and pass the Protect MI Kids bill package without further delay.  

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