Growing number of Asian-Americans smoke

June 21, 2011 3:26:07 PM PDT
Will graphic new warning labels on cigarette packs help stem the rising number of Asian-Americans who are picking up the habit?

The Food and Drug Administration just released new cigarette warning labels which feature graphic pictures of the dangers of tobacco use.

In large immigrant communities, like Chinatown, smoking rates are well above the national average. Many smokers began their habit in Asian countries where smoking is more common, and because of language and cultural barriers, they find it difficult to find the support needed to quit.

They are illegal to sell in the United States, but that hasn't kept Chinese cigarettes emblazoned with the symbol for good fortune from finding a large market in Chicago's Chinatown. It's part of the uphill battle faced by anti-smoking groups in that neighborhood.

"Our population is more socially isolated in an ethnic enclave. And so they don't receive health messages through the mainstream media," said Meme Wang, Asian Health Coalition.

A recent study commissioned by the Asian Health Coalition found that one in three men in Chinatown smokes, well above rates for Chicago and the nation.

The group says new federally-mandated cigarette warning labels, which include images of sick babies, diseased lungs, a mouthful of rotten teeth and a man with a breathing hole in his neck, may help get the message across in Chinatown.

"The images are very straight, very direct," said Wang. "They clearly show what are the consequences of smoking. They do overcome some of the linguistic barriers."

The new warning labels will take up half of the front and back of cigarette packs and 20 percent of advertisements.

UIC professor Sherry Emery has studied tobacco-related ads and marketing for over 15 years and says the new labels are modeled after those used effectively for years in parts of Europe.

"There's been a lot of survey data and just focus groups where they've shown that people's awareness is greater, people remember the labels more, people express greater intention to quit smoking after they see the labels," said Emery.

But some smokers question how effective the labels will be.

"It'll scare some people away I'm sure, but I think most people already know the dangers of smoking," said Shane Williams.

The new labels are not unlike anti-smoking signs now posted around Chinatown. The images include a father no longer there for his family, a stark message soon to be echoed on cigarette packs.

"These images are not easy to ignore at all," Wang said.

Printed on each new warning label will be phone numbers that will connect people to quit smoking hotlines in each state. The helpline in Illinois has the capability of conducting counseling in different languages.

A typical pack of cigarettes costs about $10 these days, but those Chinese cigarettes can sell for $4.

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