By Henrik Rehbinder

Tobacco addiction has serious adverse effects on the health of Latinos and has a direct and indisputable link to those diseases that hit the community the hardest, such as heart disease and diabetes. Anti-smoking organizations have identified the threat posed by e-cigarettes as their biggest challenge today, and Latino youth remain at the center of the struggle.

For an industry that makes its livelihood by selling products whose consumption takes years off the lives of consumers, the perennial challenge is to continuously find new customers who will become addicted. Like other industries, tobacco has come up with a new delivery model, e-cigarettes, and offers them in enticing flavors like cherry bubblegum to attract young people.

The tobacco industry has long set its sights on the Latino community, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Since Latinos represent the youngest population in the United States, they are a natural prime target for a new generation of addicts. The results are very worrisome.

A recently released report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on the risks and leading causes of death among Hispanics 2009-2013 shows that Hispanic and white students report similar overall tobacco use rates in general. However, Latino middle-schoolers report e-cigarettes and hookah use that is two times and four times as high as those of white middle school students, respectively. And, last April the CDC estimated that use among students of middle and high schools had tripled between 2013 and 2014.

The number of Latino smokers overall declined in recent years. The rate of smokers is 9.9 % among Latinos, compared to 15.1% in the overall population. Within the community, Puerto Ricans are the highest smokers, followed by Cubans, Mexicans, and then Central and South Americans.

While any reduction is of course positive, the bad news is that those who were once smokers represent a significant portion of the increased numbers of Latinos suffering from various heart diseases and from diabetes, which disproportionately affects Hispanics.

Tobacco’s hold over the Latino community has been shrinking over time but this progress is now threatened by the emergence of e-cigarettes.  The medical impact of this form of tobacco consumption is still under discussion and investigation.  But what is beyond doubt is that e-cigarettes create an addiction to nicotine among new young smokes. The vape may also be a gateway to conventional cigarettes.

This week the federal government began regulating e-cigarettes in an effort to limit their easy access by banning sales of e-cigarettes to people under the age of 18.  The new rules also require a photo ID to purchase them and stop retailers from handing out free samples.  Other measures include dramatically increasing the tax on e-cigarettes thereby making their price out-of-reach for adolescents’ pocketbooks.

That precisely is the strategy proposed by the authors of California’s Proposition 65. At a recent press conference held at the AltaMed Medical & Dental Group clinic in Boyle Heights, California Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León joined medical staff, local business owners and labor leaders in promoting the initiative that would raise the tobacco tax by $2 a pack.

The event was also meant to inform the Hispanic community of the alarming increase of e-cigarettes among students and how raising the price of tobacco could detain it.

In this struggle, anti-cigarette programs that take into account the language and culture of the Latino community are critically important.  This means every effort should be taken to provide bilingual materials, access to information, and an effective anti-smoking campaign that is directed toward young people.  The youth and Latino community cannot afford a setback in its fight against smoking.

Photo above: Senator Kevin de León, surrounded by local children, at Boyle Heights Proposition 56 event.

Henrik Rehbinder is the former editor of the opinion page at La Opinión and an independent writer.

Boyle Heights Beat is a bilingual community newspaper produced by its youth "por y para la comunidad". The newspaper and its sister website serve an immigrant neighborhood in East Los Angeles of just under...

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