La Familia Latina and Tobacco

By: Olga Villa Parra

Approximately 31.3 million (11.2 percent) Americans are Latinos or of other Spanish descent. Most Latinos are of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, or South/CentralAmerican ancestry. Although cultural differences exist among Latino subgroups, most speak Spanish and are Roman Catholic. Latinos have settled across the United States; however, according to the U.S. Census,Ý 84 percent reside in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Texas.

My family is also part of the Latino American experience in the United States. My parents were Julio Villa and Maria Rodriguez from Muskegon, Michigan. We were raised in a rural area and our parents worked hard to send us to school, retain our language, keep our faith traditions and learn civic community responsibilities. We were a very happy family, seven sisters and two brothers. Mother always would tell us that one should be educated at home and would learn a skill for life in the schools. That dicho (story) has always been a guiding light for me.

My father was a chain smoker; until his death, he smoked one cigarette after another. I was 25 years old when he died. I recall the doctor telling me Papa Julioís lungs were like charcoal. It didn’t make any sense to me then; now I shudder to understand the pain he endured at that time.

As I recall, five members of the family had some type of asthmatic or breathing difficulties. Today, only one brother smokes and he is always working on quitting. I am older and wonder, what if my father would have known the effects smoking was having on his family? I am positive that he would have stopped smoking. The entire neighborhood called him Don Julio as a sign of respect. With much respect, I too wish he had stopped smoking. Maybe he would have been with us longer.

What are the health effects of tobacco use on the Latino family today?

Smoking is responsible for 87 percent of the lung cancer deaths in the United States. Overall, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among Latinos. Lung cancer deaths are about three times higher for Latino men (23.1 per 100,000) than for Latina women (7.7 per 100,000). The rate of lung cancer deaths per 100,000 were higher among Cuban American men (33.7) than among Puerto Rican (28.3) and Mexican American men (21.9). Coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death for Latinos living in the United States. Among Latino subgroups in 1992-1994, death rates for coronary heart disease were 82 per 100,000 for Mexican American men and 44.2 per 100,000 for Mexican American women, 118.6 per 100,000 for Puerto Rican men and 67.3 per 100,000 for Puerto Rican women, and 95.2 per 100,000 for Cuban men and 42.4 per 100,000 for Cuban women.

The “Monitoring the Future” study shows that cigarette smoking among Latino high school seniors declined from 35.7percent in 1977 to 20.6percent in 1989; however, smoking prevalence has been increasing in the 1990s — from 21.7percent in 1990 to 27.3percent in 1999.

As we strive to have happier lives, let us remember the health and strength of our families, especially our children. Let us learn to do alternatives to smoking: walking with the family, Sunday park outings, attending church activities and leaving a legacy that is much healthier