By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
The first time Shyquetta McElroy puffed on a cigarette, she was 12 and had just lit it for her mom. She did not like it, but nearly a decade later, she tried again. For 11 years, McElroy smoked on and off. This past January, McElroy quit smoking for good and instead picked up the pen.
McElroy recently wrote two poems for No Menthol Sunday, an annual day of observance led by the Wisconsin Tobacco Prevention and Poverty Network and the Center for Black Health and Equity. This year, No Menthol Sunday is taking place on Sunday, May 16. It is a day when the faith community and other groups come to together to raise awareness on the danger that tobacco, vaping and menthol hold.
This year’s commemoration is particularly notable due to recent action taken by the Biden Administration and the FDA to address the injustices related to tobacco products. Last month, the Biden Administration announced that it plans to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars.
Menthol makes cigarettes easier to smoke and harder to quit, according to Truth Initiative, a national organization committed to ending tobacco use and nicotine addiction. For years, menthol products have been targeted to African American and low-income communities of color.
The Wisconsin Tobacco Prevention and Poverty Network found that nearly 45,000 African Americans die a year from smoking. The habit also causes major health issues such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. The organization reported that 9 out of 10 Black smokers in Wisconsin prefer menthol cigarettes. Furthermore, the smoking rate among African Americans is 26%.
As a child, McElroy recalled driving down the street and seeing billboards for smoking, and her mom, a regular smoker, received coupons in the mail. Smoking was a family affair, she said. McElroy lit the cigarette on the stove, her mom smoked it and everyone in the house got secondhand smoke.
“It was all around me,” McElroy said.
Smoking was the 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 the clubs, she’d join her friends for a cigarette outside. That quickly progressed into a regular habit, she said.
McElroy tried to quit smoking several times. She quit each time she had her children, two boys and twin girls, but over time she’d go back to it. Then she had an epiphany. Her smoking wasn’t just ruining her life, it was damaging her children’s lives.
When she made the decision to quit cold turkey, she knew she couldn’t do it alone. She found herself a sponsor – or as she prefers it, a support person.
Anyone trying to quit needs a support person, a person to help you quit, she said. For McElroy, that person is her mom – who stopped smoking around the same time McElroy picked up the habit.
Sponsors can help you get through your struggles in life, she said, they help you figure out your triggers and are there to support you. Through her quitting process, McElroy figured out that when she feels angry or agitated, she wants to smoke. Now, when she gets the urge, she calls her support person.
McElroy is also adapting new habits. She crochets, she does home décor projects and she writes.
“I’ve been doing poetry since a very young age,” she said. “I’ve always been a writer.”
Her poems for No Menthol Sunday, “A New Day” and “Rise Like the Sun,” capture McElroy’s personal struggle to fight the urge to smoke and the hope of succeeding. She wrote both poems in under 30 minutes.
“Nothing can stop you so rise like the sun. Break free of those chains and take your breath back. Inhale and exhale your new beginning without a pack,” her poem “Rise Like the Sun” reads.
Writing the poems has helped McElroy stay on track and she hopes that if someone is going through something similar that they hear or read her poem and know they’re not alone.
While tobacco and smoking will always be a topic McElroy writes about, she has no intention of picking up a cigarette again.
“Monday is a new day and I feel my strength has grew,” her poem “A New Day” reads. “Tuesday was hard but the love of my children got me through…Friday was the peace and calm that showed me I will be okay.”