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Q&A with Carol McGruder, founding member and co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council

Feb 15, 2021

Carol McGruder is a founding member and co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council. Formed in California in 2008, the council partners with community stakeholders, elected officials and public health agencies to inform the direction of tobacco control policies affecting the lives of Black Americans and African immigrant populations. The council has been at the forefront in elevating the regulation of mentholated and other flavored tobacco products on the national tobacco control agenda.

Interact for Health: The African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council has pushed municipalities to adopt "buffer zones" that would make it illegal to sell flavored tobacco products-- including menthol-- within a 500 to 1,000 foot radius of schools. What progress have you made on this front?

McGruder: We have made phenomenal progress, even beyond what we envisioned. When Chicago came on board in 2013 as the first city to restrict the sale of menthol and flavored tobacco products around schools, we thought that was as good as it gets. We never imagined that within a few short years these restrictions would be applied across entire cities and counties! Last year when first Massachusetts and then California enacted statewide legislation we were ecstatic to say the least.

Interact for Health: What has been the biggest obstacle you've encountered in advocating for the adoption of buffer zones?

McGuder: The biggest obstacle is always tobacco industry interference. Their latest interference is to cynically use their own historical predatory targeting of the Black community and try to flip it, saying that policies that aim to protect the Black community from tobacco industry profiling are racist. The tobacco industry latches onto the legitimate fears and concerns of racial profiling and police brutality and uses them to block public health policy that could annually save 45,000 Black lives from tobacco-induced diseases.

Interact for Health: Can you tell me about some of your other initiatives regarding menthol policy?

McGruder: The African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council is suing the Food and Drug Administration for its inaction regarding mentholated tobacco products.  We have been joined in our lawsuit by Action on Smoking and Health, the American Medical Association and the National Medical Association. We initiated the lawsuit last year and we are so proud to have our African American doctors (the NMA) joining us as co-plaintiffs!

Interact for Health: Briefly, could you please tell a story that illustrates the effect of your work?

McGruder: Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. and the NAACP both passed national resolutions supporting getting mentholated tobacco products off of the market. To me, that illustrates what the tenacity and true engagement of our leadership groups can do and validates the importance of what we are doing.

Interact for Health: What lessons have you learned through your work?

McGruder: Patience and you live to fight another day. Prepare for the long haul and know that your hard work might set something in motion that will come to fruition later.  Do your part and don't be discouraged.

Interact for Health: How do you expect the coronavirus pandemic and the renewed scrutiny of inequity and systemic racism will affect and guide your work going forward?

McGruder: We knew that the Black community would be hit hard by COVID-19 but had no idea that it would be this hard. We hope that it won't be business as usual once we get past this horrific part of the pandemic and that our nation is ready to really deal with our historical inequities. This is hard, uncomfortable work that we must do if we truly want to move forward.

Interact for Health: You've been pursuing your mission for 13 years. What has changed during that time that gives you hope?

McGruder: The awareness and engagement of African-American leadership groups gives me tremendous hope. Also how the "average person" gets it. They have lived with the tobacco industry targeting them and when we talk about it, their eyes light up in recognition. Oftentimes Black smokers feel guilty when in fact they never knew what hit them. They understand now that their "free choice" wasn't so free. Their communities were easy prey for the taking and got took. There is a day of reckoning that is coming for our people. 

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