Ice-T has been getting the flu vaccine for many, many years. Why? His reason is simple: “I just don’t want to get sick.” In a recent interview, the star of the long-running Law & Order: SVU talked to me about his early military career, men’s health, Black individuals’ mistrust of doctors and the government, and his partnership with Sanofi including their vaccine, Fluzone. The Season, a suspenseful film to which Ice-T provides the voiceover, aims to educate older adults, particularly those with chronic illnesses, about the harms of influenza.
“I’ve been taking the flu vaccine for, like, 25 years, so yeah, I wanted to get involved,” says the Grammy-winner. “I want to promote what I’m already doing because I hate getting sick.” In the army, he received multiple vaccines. “When you’re in the infantry going to someplace like Panama, out in the field, the last thing you want to get is sick. So we took everything we could to stay healthy.”
Ice-T also proudly points out that in his 24-year tenure on Law & Order, he had never taken a sick day. In fact, he reveals that his boss, Dick Wolf, gave him the greatest compliment: “You’re the least pain in my ass!” The former reality star also doesn’t want his wife or 7-year-old child to get sick. The whole family receives all necessary vaccines.
The global hip-hop star discussed Fluzone, a high-dose quadrivalent influenza vaccine, and its indication for people 65 years of age and older. Fluzone provides active immunization for prevention of the flu caused by subtypes A and B of the influenza virus. This flu campaign held personal significance for Ice-T: he turned 65 earlier this year and is aware that he’s now at higher risk of flu-related complications.
Influenza Symptoms and Complications
While the flu can be as mild as the common cold, it can also cause severe illness and death. Symptoms can come on suddenly. Fever, chills, sore throat, cough, runny or stuffy nose, headaches, body aches and fatigue are the most common symptoms. Most people recover in a few days, possibly up to two weeks. Others, however, may develop life-threatening complications. Ear and sinus infections are typically on the moderate side. Pneumonia, myocarditis (heart inflammation), rhabdomyolysis (severe muscle injury), encephalitis (brain inflammation) and multi-organ failure are examples of severe complications that can lead to death. The flu can also worsen existing chronic health problems such as asthma and heart disease.
The good news is that the flu vaccine can reduce the risk of getting the flu and its complications including death. This is why Ice-T gets vaccinated. The bad news, however, is that flu vaccination rates in the United States aren’t that great. During the 2021-22 season, the CDC reported that the overall vaccination rate against the flu was 51%. Thankfully, the most vulnerable group—people over 65—had a higher vaccination rate (74%). But only 49% of adults ages 18-64 received the flu vaccine—data that concerns public health experts.
Vaccination Rates Declining
“Vaccines have become a victim of their own success,” commiserates Paul A. Offit, MD, Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Pre-vaccine, measles killed 2.6 million people each year. “We don’t see measles anymore because of vaccines,” explains Dr. Offit. Until now. Vaccine-preventable illnesses are making a resurgence including polio, pertussis (whooping cough) and measles—respiratory infections that can cause severe health problems including paralysis, convulsions and death.
“People don’t realize the dangerous game we play when we let immunization rates drop,” cautions the pediatrician and public health advocate.
An internationally recognized expert in virology and immunology, Dr. Offit advises people with respiratory-type symptoms to get tested for flu, COVID-19 and RSV. If you’re sick, then stay home. But if you have to leave the house, then wear a mask. “All of these viruses are bad,” warns Dr. Offit.
Vaccines and Health Inequity
According to the HHS Office of Minority Health, Black Americans are less likely to get the flu or pneumonia vaccines, particularly the most vulnerable demographics: Black individuals >65 and babies aged 19-35 months. Combined with the disproportionate burden of chronic diseases, far too many Black Americans are at high risk of flu-related complications, hospitalizations and premature death. So, I asked Ice-T—the lyricist of “Cop Killer,” a song about police brutality against Black people—what role race played, if at all, in his decision to promote the flu vaccine.
“None,” asserts the songwriter without hesitation. “Black people have their feelings about vaccines. We have a history. Black people were used as guinea pigs, you know? I just speak for myself. I’ve been taking the flu vaccine for years. I have no problem with it.” Ice-T believes that the lack of trust by Black and brown communities for the medical establishment and the government is a major reason for low vaccination rates among “my people.” Scholars of racial injustice agree.
“Health disparities are totally avoidable and only exist because of racism,” explains Ayana Jordan, M.D., PhD, Barbara Wilson Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine. “It’s a system built on a social construct—totally made up—but has real negative consequences for those who are not a part of the ‘preferential or ideal race.’” The Covid-19 pandemic unmasked longstanding racial injustice.
Dr. Jordan shares Ice-T’s belief that Black people, in particular, have mistrust of medical professionals because “we’ve been treated so poorly and harmed by the U.S healthcare system.” Solutions exist. If we invest in structures that promote better health such as clean water, green spaces, universal healthcare and universal basic income for the most minoritized groups or those most severely impacted by racism, then according to Dr. Jordan, “we could begin to build an equitable health system where we all benefit.”
Men Need to See the Doctor
In addition to promoting the flu vaccine, Ice-T had another incentive for joining this campaign: encouraging men to see a physician. The rapper jokes about men vs. women. “My wife, Coco, talks to her gynecologist if she breaks a nail! Women are so in tune with their bodies. But men, we have to be on a slab before we go see a doctor.” The award-winning musician is getting more health-conscious as he’s getting older, reflecting with sadness and shock over his 40-year-old male friends dying. “I’m like, come on, man, what’s happening? At 65, I’m out here doing everything I was doing when I was 25.”
Data supports Ice-T’s assertion. According to the CDC, women are 33% more likely than men to see a doctor, even excluding pregnancy-related visits. This statistic prompted the platinum-selling hip-hop artist to ask if this was why women outlive men.
Female life expectancy, indeed, exceeds that of males. Before 1950, excess mortality of baby boys was the largest contributor to the sex gap in lifespan. But more recently, higher mortality among men 60+ tipped the scales towards increased female life expectancy. I offered a different perspective: married men live longer than single men—a fact that fascinated the husband of 21 years. In contrast, studies suggest that single women fare better when they live alone, possibly because women who don’t live with a husband or children are liberated from traditional roles and expectations. All of these stats riveted the hip-hop star who just wanted to continue living a “straight path.”
Ice-T wears many hats: singer, songwriter, producer, actor, activist, husband and father. Given his demanding schedule, I asked him about his self-care routine.
“I’m on a very low-stress diet. I eat all foods but in moderation,” describes the New Jack City star. He also shares his diagnosis of high blood pressure early in his career: “It was stress-related so I started to remove certain people from my life.” He also doesn’t raise his voice, and anybody who works for him “needs to be mellow.” Staying active is also key—not an easy task while working LONG hours on a hit television show. “I do my little workouts night and day.”
As an addiction medicine doctor, I was captivated by his substance-free lifestyle which he attributes to “being an orphan.” Ice-T’s mother died when he was 8; his father died five years later.
“I never drank. I never smoked. I never got high. As an orphan, I didn’t want to compromise my safety because when you get drunk or high, you’re putting your hands in somebody else’s. I never had anybody.” Ice-T reiterates that these choices worked for him. “Everybody’s got to find out what works for them.”
Ice-T also connects his mental wellness to life’s little indulgences. “If I take away my tacos, I won’t be happy up here!” [pointing to his brain]
As a doctor and public health advocate dedicated to serving the underserved, addressing stress-related conditions and combatting misinformation (including anti-vaccine propaganda), I am extraordinarily grateful to Ice-T for using his massive global platform to share his story with vaccines, prevention and overall health. We need FAR more celebrities like Ice-T who follow science and use their influence to save lives.
To what the full interview, visit my YouTube channel.