By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
The first time Shyquetta McElroy blew on a cigarette, she was 12 and had just lit it for her mother. She didn’t like it, but almost a decade later she tried again. For 11 years, McElroy smoked intermittently. Last January, McElroy quit smoking for good and picked up the pen instead.
McElroy recently wrote two poems for No Menthol Sunday, an annual day of celebration run by the Wisconsin Tobacco Prevention and Poverty Network and the Center for Black Health and Equity. This year, No Menthol Sunday will take place on Sunday May 16. It’s a day when the religious community and other groups come together to raise awareness of the dangers of tobacco, vaping and menthol.
This year’s commemoration is particularly noteworthy given recent steps taken by the Biden administration and the FDA to address injustices related to tobacco products. Last month, the Biden administration announced plans to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars.
Menthol makes cigarettes easier to smoke and harder to quit, according to the Truth Initiative, a national organization committed to ending smoking and nicotine addiction. For years, menthol products have been targeted at African American and low-income communities of color.
The Wisconsin Tobacco Prevention and Poverty Network has found that nearly 45,000 African Americans die from smoking each year. This habit also leads to major health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. The organization reported that 9 out of 10 black smokers in Wisconsin prefer menthol cigarettes. Additionally, the smoking rate among African Americans is 26%.
As a child, McElroy recalled driving down the street and seeing smoking billboards, and his mother, a regular smoker, had received coupons in the mail. Smoking was a family affair, she said. McElroy lit the cigarette on the stove, his mother smoked it, and everyone in the house had second-hand smoke.
âIt was all around me,â McElroy said.
Smoking was the right thing to do. In high school, you weren’t cool if you didn’t smoke, she said. When McElory turned 21 and started going to clubs, she would join her friends for a cigarette outside. It quickly evolved into a regular habit, she said.
McElroy has tried to quit smoking several times. She quit every time she had her children, two boys and twins, but over time she would go back. Then she had a revelation. Her smoking not only ruined her life, it damaged the lives of her children.
When she made the decision to stop cold turkey, she knew she couldn’t do it on her own. She has found herself a sponsor – or as she prefers, a support person.
Anyone trying to quit needs a supportive person, someone to help you quit, she said. For McElroy, that person is his mother – who quit smoking around the same time McElroy got used to it.
Sponsors can help you get over your struggles in life, she says, they help you understand your triggers and are there to support you. Through her quitting process, McElroy has figured out that when she feels angry or agitated, she wants to smoke. Now when she feels like it, she calls her support person.
McElroy is also adapting new habits. She crochet, she does home decor projects and she writes.
âI have been doing poetry from a young age,â she says. “I have always been a writer.”
His poems for No Menthol Sunday, “A New Day” and “Rise Like the Sun” illustrate McElroy’s personal struggle to fight the urge to smoke and the hope of success. She wrote both poems in less than 30 minutes.
âNothing can stop you, so rise up like the sun. Free yourself from these chains and catch your breath. Breathe in and out your new start without a pack, âreads his poemâ Rise Like the Sun â.
Writing the poems has helped McElroy stay on track and she is hopeful that if anyone goes through something similar they will hear or read her poem and know that they are not alone.
Although tobacco and smoking is always a topic McElroy writes about, she has no plans to resume a cigarette.
“Monday is a new day and I feel that my strength has grown”, we read in his poem “A New Day”. “Tuesday was difficult but the love of my children helped meâ¦ Friday was the peace and quiet that showed me that everything would be fine.”