Anti-smoking and brimstone

Crusading woman warns African-Americans about the dangers of cigarettes

October 29, 2006|By A Sun Reporter

Brenda Bell Caffee had always stopped smoking when she was pregnant. It was no different at first when she was expecting her sixth child, but then she experienced significant weight gain.

"I remember my doctor telling me to resume smoking because the weight was a problem," Caffee said yesterday. "So I smoked through the pregnancy."

Her son was born Nov. 18, 1981, with lungs not fully developed, respiratory problems and asthma.

The next day Caffee quit smoking for good. Although she does not blame tobacco for all of her son's health problems, she said, "I'm sure the smoking made it worse."

Caffee has been on a crusade ever since, and she brought that mission yesterday to the New Shiloh Baptist Church in Dundalk, where, with a mixture of humor, pleading, and fire and brimstone, she urged African-American women to make their homes smoke-free.

"We still have a problem in America," she told an estimated 80 guests, most of them women. "No matter what you hear, we have not won the war against tobacco."

Yesterday's presentation was sponsored by the Baltimore County Health Department.

Caffee is a former health official with California. In 2000, she formed the nonprofit Caffee, Caffee Associates PHF Inc. and now travels the county spreading her anti-tobacco sermon, titled "Not in Mama's Kitchen," which is geared almost exclusively to black women.

The reasons for that, she said in an interview, are because tobacco-related illness, including secondhand smoke, affect African-Americans disproportionately, and "women run the households."

Sixty percent of black homes, Caffee said, are "headed by women. If you really want to make a difference, then you have to reach them."

Caffee noted statistics that, she said, keep her motivated and she hopes will mobilize others:

Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer of African-Americans in this country.

Thirty minutes of exposure to secondhand smoke can reduce blood flow to the heart.

Despite an overall national decline, smoking is increasing among African-Americans, according to a study in Los Angeles County.

Homes of African-Americans are least likely to be tobacco-free, according to a University of San Francisco study.

Tobacco-related illnesses are the top predictable cause of death of black men.

"We're dying as a people," Caffee said. "In the time we spend together today, 100 African-Americans will die of tobacco-related illnesses, and 50 children in Maryland will be taken to the emergency room" because of severe asthma attacks.

If anything, she said, the statistics are conservative.

Caffee acknowledged that women would face significant challenges in banning smoking from homes. "It's a cultural thing," she said. "How are you going to tell your grandmother to go outside in the cold to smoke?

"I don't want them to think that it's an easy thing to do," she added. "You're talking about telling people to are addicted. ... In some cases it's hard. Very hard."

Nonetheless, Caffee said about half the women who attend her presentations prohibit smoking in their homes immediately.

Caffee appeared to strike a nerve yesterday. Several in the audience signed "commitment cards" - pledging themselves to go home and declare smoking off limits.

"I think it was wonderful," Phyllis J. Seward said of Caffee's presentation. "The information was timely. She is terrific."

The Rev. Harold L. Knight said he has made the grounds of the church smoke-free, and said the challenge now is follow Caffee's lead.

"We have signed pledges," he said, "now we have to honor them."

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