Dr. Jeanne Kowalik, the Milwaukee Health Commissioner, said she plans to tackle the tobacco issue. (Photo by Ana Martinez-Ortiz)

By Ana Martinez-Ortiz

When it comes to tobacco, most people know at least one person in his or her life who smokes. In Wisconsin, the state average reaches 16 percent, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

Last week, the Wisconsin African-American Tobacco Prevention Network (WAATPN) and the Wisconsin Tobacco Prevention and Poverty Network (WTPPN) held their quarterly meeting. During the luncheon, Milwaukee Health Commissioner, Dr. Jeanette Kowalik, spoke.

Kowalik, who formerly worked as the health coordinator for the Boys and Girls Club of Wisconsin, said that the health commission is working towards several goals in the months to come. One of its goals is to address the tobacco disparity rate.

“[We’re] trying to infuse equity into everything we do,” Kowalik said.

The health department will update its website. Kowalik said it is also planning to create a Board of Health which will check on the commission’s progress.Kowalik said that in addition to the tobacco issue, the health department is addressing the lead issue and dealing with a staffing issue. There’s a lot to cover in a limited amount of time, she said. However, Kowalik said the health department is trying its best to be transparent about the issues plaguing Milwaukee and its efforts to fix them.

Some store owners are displaying these posters in their stores to decrease and prevent the sales of single cigarettes. (Photo by Ana Martinez-Ortiz)
Some store owners are displaying these posters in their stores to decrease and prevent the sales of single cigarettes. (Photo by Ana Martinez-Ortiz)

“I am happy to have that layer of accountability,” Kowalik said.

Kowalik said going forward, the health commission plans to research the role tobacco plays in people’s lives.

Although the state average is 16 percent, Wisconsin Department of Health reported that 28 percent of African-Americans smoke. For individuals living in poverty that rate reaches 29 percent.

According to the WAATPN and WTPPN, certain communities are more likely to smoke due to a plethora of reasons. Low-income communities of color and young people will see more advertisements for smoking compared to their counterparts. Additionally, the WAAPTN and WTPPN said that tobacco companies now offer candy or fruit flavored products that target young people, specifically those of color.

Lorraine Lathen, the director of WAATPN and WTPPN, said the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) proclaimed 2019 the year of cessation. In other words, the CDC hopes to bring the use of tobacco to an end.

In terms of cessation, there’s been some progress made already. UW-Milwaukee, Milwaukee Area Technical College and Marquette University are smoke free campuses.

According to Edgar Mendez, the WTTPN Coordinator, the groups is also trying to get the Henry Mair fairgrounds or Summerfest grounds to become smoke free.

Mendez presented Wisconsin’s Report Card courtesy of the American Lung Association and the State of Tobacco Control. Wisconsin received an “F” in the following categories: tobacco prevention and control program funding, access to cessation services and Tobacco 21.

Tobacco 21, would move the eligible age from 18 to 21, which some states have already done, Mendez said. Wisconsin doesn’t have one yet, but it is planning on creating one, he added.

Wisconsin received a “D” in tobacco taxes and an “A” for smoke free air.

Wisconsin may not have received the best “report card” but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. When it comes to smoking tobacco or menthol, everyone can do their part to say no and educate one another.

This article originally appeared in the Milwaukee Courier. 

Milwaukee Health Department Plans to Address Tobacco Disparities

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