Donna Brown has smoked since she was in her teens.
Now 62, she says, "I'm at an age now where I need to stop smoking. ... I know a lot of people with (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). I don't want it. It seems like such a miserable thing, all that hacking and coughing."
Brown recently participated in a discussion, sponsored by Capital District Tobacco-Free Communities, about tobacco and how it impacts those who use it, their families and friends and the communities in which they live.
She and the other participants all hailed from neighborhoods with higher rates of tobacco use than other parts of Schenectady County: Hamilton Hill, Mont Pleasant, Goose Hill and downtown.
The goal of the discussion was to get feedback, but also to educate.
Participants learned that there are more opportunities to buy tobacco in their neighborhoods than in other more affluent communities.
The display advertisements for tobacco products tend to be bigger in the stores they frequent, while more behind-the-counter space is dedicated to tobacco products.
"It was a very interesting presentation, especially when it came to cigarettes being in the 'hood," Brown told me. "I'd never thought about it before, but they're more prevalent and more accessible."
Over the past two decades, tobacco use nationwide has plummeted.
But there's one population where cigarette smoking and tobacco use remain stubbornly high: people who live at or near the poverty level.
The Capital District Tobacco-Free Coalition wants to address this, and the group is putting together a report that will contain information about tobacco retailer density in Schenectady County, insights from discussion participants such as Brown and ideas for reducing tobacco use in places where it is high.
One goal is simply making people more aware of how Big Tobacco targets low-income communities.
Among the group's findings: More than half of the 164 tobacco retailers in Schenectady County are located in just five zip codes -- 12303, 12304, 12305, 12307 and 12308 -- all in the city.
"We wanted to look at the landscape and ask, 'What kind of story does it tell?'" said Jeanie Orr, who heads up community engagement for the Capital District Tobacco-Free Coalition.
I've looked at some of the Capital District Tobacco-Free Coalition's data, and the story it tells is a discouraging one, of neighborhoods where tobacco products are easier to find than good, quality food. Where we live matters to our health, and unhealthy products abound in lower-income communities.
According to the Capital District Tobacco-Free Coalition survey, there are 25 tobacco retailers in Mont Pleasant, 26 in the Upper State Street area, nine in the Stockade, 17 in Hamilton Hill and 17 in Goose Hill. There are 12 tobacco retailers in Niskayuna. In Scotia/Glenville, there are 19.
Of course, it's a free country, and people can smoke if they want to.
But the aggressiveness with which tobacco companies and retailers promote and sell tobacco products in lower-income communities raises real questions about what can be done, if anything, to create a healthier environment for those who reside in those neighborhoods.
"In public health, you want the individual to change their behavior, but you also want to look to the community to make it easier for people to change," Orr said. "So many people told us, 'I wish I could quit,' or 'I don't want this for my kids, for the next generation.'"
Orr has some ideas on how to reduce smoking rates in lower-income communities, such as capping the number of tobacco retailers in the city. One big change, announced last year by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development: Smoking is now barred from public housing.
Brown, who lives in the Stockade neighborhood, smokes 10 cigarettes a day, but said the Capital District Tobacco-Free Coalition inspired her to try quitting.
She described smoking as a social thing -- "you're sitting around talking with friends and you've all got cigarettes in your hands" -- but also an addictive habit that causes problems.
"If half a day goes by and I don't have a cigarette, I start to get antsy and cranky," she said. "We think cigarettes create stress, but they relieve stress."
Orr told me that some of the discussion participants were angry when they learned how aggressively tobacco companies target their neighborhoods, but Brown sounded more resigned than angry when I asked her about it.
"It's just business," she said. "They're always going to target the less fortunate."
Which is true enough, but doesn't mean nothing can be done about it, or that we should throw up our hands and accept it.
We can -- and should -- make it harder to peddle tobacco-products in lower-income communities. High rates of smoking have taken their toll on Schenectady's poorer neighborhoods, and we should do what we can to change that.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]