Tobacco-Free Erie and Niagara Counties

This project aims to advance tobacco-free communities in Erie and Niagara Counties through education, community mobilization, and policy change in order to reduce the burden of tobacco use and prevent future initiation.

Although cigarette use among adults has generally declined in recent years, poor communities, particularly communities of color, have been left behind in the advancements made in tobacco control. These disparities have been exacerbated by the aggressive behavior of the tobacco industry in poor communities and communities of color.

Across New York State, about 12.8 percent of people smoke, according to data from 2018. These rates are much higher in Erie and Niagara counties, at 17.8 percent and 23.6 percent, respectively. Furthermore, a study in 2013 found that smoking rates were highest among adults with household incomes less than $15,000. Disparities are particularly stark related to menthol use. Menthol cigarettes are used by more than half of adult smokers in New York State and are especially concerning as they are easier to start and harder to quit, and they mask the harshness of inhaling smoke. These rates are even higher among minority groups, with 86 percent of Black and 72 percent of Hispanic smokers using menthol cigarettes.

The initiative

CAI convenes the Tobacco-Free Erie and Niagara Counties, bringing together community members, educators, health care providers, elected officials, and policymakers and strengthening their capacity to change policies and practices in these communities. We use a community-based participatory research approach to meaningfully engage communities. We also empower and train youth as champions across counties in a statewide movement, “Reality Check,” which supports youth in speaking up against tobacco use and fostering a tobacco-free culture.

The impact

Shifting social norms in order to end tobacco use is the ultimate goal of this project. Creating environments like smoke-free parks and housing, and limiting the density of tobacco licenses, are components to facilitate that change. New York State continually monitors the prevalence of tobacco use within both the adult and youth populations as a measure of success.

This project has an additional focus to reduce tobacco use by individuals in priority populations where the marketing of tobacco has disproportionately targeted communities.

Project funder and key partners

  • Funder: A grant from the New York State Bureau of Tobacco Control’s Advancing Tobacco-Free Communities.
  • Partners: The project is led by CAI, in close collaboration with organizations, partners, and youth in Erie and Niagara Counties.

Leadership and contact

Michelle Gerka, CAI Vice President for Community Health:

Issues we work on

On this page:

Tobacco-free outdoors

“There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke.” US Surgeon General

It is important for us to not only protect our lungs, but also protect our environment.

Tobacco litter (butts and packaging) is one of the most common forms of litter. It is poisonous and puts children, pets, and wildlife at risk. Our playgrounds, parks and beaches should not be used as ashtrays.

Through youth action (the “Reality Check” program) and community engagement, we work to protect outdoor spaces that are meant to be enjoyed by our communities from the dangers of tobacco and combustible products that put people at risk for smoking-related illnesses.

Learn more!

Read a letter written by a Reality Check teen about the group’s 2022 “Chalk the Walk” event (300 KB PDF).

Tobacco-free workplaces

An employer’s responsibility is to provide a safe and healthy working environment for its employees, clients, and visitors. By promoting a smoke-free workplace environment, such policy not only protects the health of people, but also increases productivity and helps save costs at the bottom line for organizations. It promotes a cleaner, safer, and more pleasant work environment.

Tobacco Free NY signThe Clean Indoor Act which went into effect in 2003 has ensured smoke-free indoors and workplaces. In 2017, the law was expanded to also prohibit the use of e-cigarettes. However, employers can do more. By adopting and implementing a comprehensive 100% smoke-free worksite policy, they can reduce the amount of secondhand smoke and liter that may otherwise be found across the worksite grounds. Such policies are intended to promote the health and well-being of all people.

Learn more!

See a list of businesses and housing areas that have adopted tobacco-free policies.

Tobacco marketing

Studies have found that kids are twice as sensitive to tobacco marketing compared to adults, and one third of underage experimentation is attributable to tobacco marketing. In NYS, the average age of a new smoker is 13.

Through youth action and community engagement, we focus our efforts on restricting the tobacco industry’s influence and ability to addict the next generation of smokers.

Our goals:

  • Prevent youth initiation
  • Reduce adult use
  • Improve community health outcomes

Tobacco companies spend more than half a million dollars every day in New York State to grow that number, but by exposing the tobacco industry’s current marketing strategies, we can stop them in their tracks.

To successfully recruit new young smokers and keep as many current smokers as possible, the tobacco industry makes their deadly products sweet, cheap and easy to get by offering affordable, accessible, and attractive products. Flavors make it easier to start, and harder to quit, leaving youth vulnerable to Big Tobacco’s targeted efforts to make them replacement smokers.

Youth action: Reality Check

Reality Check is a youth-led movement in New York State that empowers youth to become leaders in their communities in exposing what they see as the manipulative and deceptive marketing tactics of the tobacco industry. The organization’s members produce change in their communities through grassroots mobilization and education.

In 2024, Jah’Asya Cannon was awarded Reality Check’s Western Region Youth Ambassador of the Year. Read about Jah’Asya’s work in this flyer (3 MB PDF).


News and events

2024 Quit Success Story from a “Community Champion” (62 KB PDF)

May 2022 “No Menthol Sunday” event with Niagara University

Created by The Center for Black Health and Equity, this annual faith-based observance day challenges us to discuss and learn about the manipulative and deceptive marketing practices of big tobacco. Such practices created generations of health-related disparities that are still alive and present today. Our team had the opportunity to come together and educate faith-based leaders, community members, and partner organizations about health inequities surrounding the use of mentholated tobacco products in Black and Brown communities. Menthol is not just a flavor, it is a social justice issue. Learn more at

Press Kit for 2021 Legislative Education Day

Features team bios, infographics and data on NY Tobacco prevalence and policies, earned media, and photos from our community events. Download the press kit (7.6 MB PDF)

A Medical Moment series of four videos, produced by G-Health Enterprises featuring CAI’s Rashawn Small

Watch other videos in the series:

“Campaign Aimed at Menthol-Flavored Tobacco Marketing Targeting Black Communities,” WKBW Buffalo, May 31, 2021.

Virtual Health Discussion: Facebook event

CAI’s Rashawn Smalls and others discuss the importance of reducing tobacco use and marketing exposure in communities in Western New York.

Conference recordings