Summer REACH media campaign encourages smoking cessation among African American communities

Marlet Hurst is connected to her community in many ways: She is a member of a local sorority, is a board member and actor for the socially conscious World Stage Theatre, and works as a patient coordinator at a local community health center. Though she’s not a smoker, Hurst sees the impact smoking has on her community. Through her job at North by Northeast Community Health Center, she often sees people with smoking-related illnesses. When Hurst was invited to participate in an anti-tobacco campaign, led by Multnomah County’s Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) program*, she was eager to take on the role.

REACH poster

In March, the REACH team released a media campaign complementing the County’s initiatives to reduce exposure and access to tobacco products. These initiatives include supporting smoke-free parks in Portland and helping health care settings provide culturally specific tobacco cessation counseling in more than 14 settings. Tobacco is one of REACH’s target areas because African Americans are disproportionately affected by tobacco-related health problems, according to Multnomah County’s 2014 Report Card. African American communities are often disproportionately targeted by tobacco company marketing campaigns. The County’s health campaign features commercials, social media and print advertisements that encourage adults to quit smoking and teens to continue to not smoke.

In a momentous step to protect young people from the harms of tobacco, the Oregon Legislature passed a bill on July 7 to raise the minimum sales age of tobacco products to 21. This was signed into law by Gov. Kate Brown on Aug. 9. This moves Oregon closer to joining Hawaii and California as the first states to reduce youth access to tobacco. This law will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2018.

Hurst, who plays the mother in the family advertisements, is one of the first faces patients see at the health center, which provides primary care focused on African American health. With the release of the REACH media campaign, Hurst has also become a community voice for quitting tobacco.

“Working there, I see a lot of people who have a history of smoking, so we do work with them... and quite a few of our patients have stopped smoking and they’re starting to take control of their health,” Hurst explains. “So it is a joint effort: When they see the commercials they’re like, ‘Wait a minute, I just saw you! Is that really you?’ So it does kind of reinforce them. I guess when I think about it, I am the voice when they’re not at the clinic. I’m just that voice in their heads.”

The ads were developed in collaboration with community partners and members. REACH and their partner, African American Health Coalition, led focus groups that showed that the community was not responsive to many existing campaigns and images. Nick Rivas, REACH’s communications specialist, notes “There is a lot of negative imagery in the media about African Americans and smoking. We wanted to move away from shaming and blaming and talk about the positive impacts of quitting.”

These discussions also revealed the community’s values and ultimately shaped the strategies used in REACH’s media campaign. All of the 15-second commercials and posters highlight values that resonate within the community, such as family and ambition. The messaging for adults focuses on family first, and the teen advertisements show how “tobacco slows down your game.” “For youth, they have big dreams and goals, lots of ambition and vision, and we wanted to tap into that,” Rivas says.

Rivas additionally chose to feature community members as actors in the commercials, further connecting the community to the campaign’s message. “People didn’t want to see actors, they wanted to see people they know,” he says.

Hurst echoes this thought: “Some of the kids ask me if I have a twin, and some say ‘Wait, that was you!’... They’re just excited to see, because, you know, I am a figure in the community.” Hurst often finds herself working with youth and others through her membership in the World Stage Theatre and sorority chapter. Participating in these commercials was another way she could give back to her community. “They’re excited to see me doing something very positive,” she says.

Hurst also echoed the focus group’s finding that messages about family values resonate with African Americans. She believes the commercials’ focus on family will appeal to both children and parents and encourage them to quit smoking.

Keep an eye out for the print ads on billboards and buses, share the videos and join the conversation on Facebook with #REACHTogetherMC. The anti-tobacco campaign is scheduled to run throughout the summer, but REACH will continue to serve the African American community in Multnomah County. Multnomah County recently received a grant extension from the CDC for another year, during which REACH looks forward to conducting an educational campaign about the impact of menthol cigarettes.

*REACH, Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health, is a three-year Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) grant awarded to Multnomah County in 2014. The grant’s purpose is to improve health in communities of color throughout the United States. The County’s REACH team works with community partners in North and Northeast Portland and Gresham to utilize culturally-specific approaches to improve nutrition and reduce tobacco use among African Americans. These partners make up the ACHIEVE Coalition, which consists of nearly 10 multi-sector community organizations across Multnomah County.