Ask any smoker, and they'll tell you that it's hard to quit. But scientists are trying to figure out why many African Americans have a harder time kicking the habit.
University of Minnesota addiction researcher Kola Okuyemi says, "African Americans, in general, even though they smoke fewer cigarettes per day compared to Caucasians, have a harder time quitting smoking."
Smoking-cessation research targeted at the African American community is critical because smoking affects a disproportional amount of African Americans. According to the American Lung Association, "African Americans have lower overall exposure to tobacco smoke, but are more susceptible to developing smoking-related illnesses. African American men are 50 percent more likely than white men to develop lung cancer."
"And in order for us to be able to reduce the disparities that we see in the success with which people quit smoking, we need a better understanding on why it is that African Americans have a harder time quitting smoking." So to investigate, Okuyemi and his team put 34 volunteers into an MRI brain-scanning machine and showed them photos of people smoking. These photos, called smoking cues, are meant to provoke a response in certain parts of the brain.
As Okuyemi wrote in the journal Addiction Biology, when African American smokers were deprived of smoking for 12 hours, they had more activity on average than Caucasians in parts of the brain involved in nicotine addiction. There was no significant difference in brain activity in response to the smoking cues among African American and Caucasian nonsmokers.
Okuyemi says this study has nothing to do with biological differences between African Americans and Caucasians. "What we're talking about here is the activity that goes on in the brain and not any difference in the structure of the brain," he says. Okuyemi theorizes that these results may be due to societal factors affecting the African American community. "The differences we're seeing may be due to the fact that these groups smoke different types of cigarettes," he says.
Penn State medical sociologist Gary King, who was not involved in the study, has studied African American smoking for 15 years. He cautions that while more research is needed, this study may help explain the differences between African Americans and Caucasians in patterns of smoking addiction, which has implications for treatment.
"There is a good deal of hope that one can take from this research," King says. "This research suggests that smoking is very much influenced by social experiences, and these are things that we can change."