This session was one driven by the constraints of COVID-19. COVID-19 has increased unemployment, decreased revenue, and increased costs to provide basic services, like education. At the same time, COVID-19 has highlighted the need for robust tobacco cessation programs and services, especially as we learn more about the link between COVID-19 complications and tobacco use. Thus, NCAH’s tobacco use prevention-related priority this year has been to avoid having our critical tobacco cessation and prevention funding appropriated for other purposes. In that, we, and our many advocacy partners, have been successful.
As the session ends, we have the opportunity to start to think about how we can return to proactive, rather than defensive, tobacco advocacy in a state, country, and world changed by COVID-19. One thing these last few months have shown us more than ever is we must actively campaign on the tobacco use prevention policies that will reduce health disparities: zoning and menthol.
Much of the disparate impact of tobacco can be tied back to retailer density, exposure to marketing, and local policies that leave underserved communities and communities of color vulnerable to tobacco’s impacts. While we have some of the strictest rules around preemption in the country, we don’t have to accept this. Addressing preemption and supporting local efforts to reduce tobacco retailer density and implement other zoning strategies that reduce tobacco use could be a vital part of reenergizing tobacco use prevention advocacy in North Carolina.
Menthol is another area where improvements would benefit all of us, but would most benefit communities of color, who are deliberately and disproportionately targeted by Big Tobacco’s marketing machine. From the Menthol Wars of the 1970s, to the flavor restrictions of the aughties, to the need for No Menthol Sunday, what we know for sure is we have consistently prioritized the health of white people at the expense of people of color. Black health advocates are demanding that we support them in their fight to change this, and we must.
We’ll also be paying attention to what other states are doing when it comes to tobacco taxes. Increasing the tobacco tax is an evidence-based strategy, but whether or not there is an appetite for that in an election year remains to be seen.