DENVER – “You’ve come a long way, baby,” was a 1970s advertising slogan for Virginia Slims cigarettes, at least one of which featured a Black woman with an afro, African print tunic top and bell-bottom jeans. Considering, however, that Blacks were at one time forced, as slaves, to pick tobacco and bring great wealth to Caucasian-owned companies, some disagree that Blacks have come a long way when they are the group most devastated by the tobacco industry today.
La Tanisha Wright, Western Region Director for the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network (NAATPN), recently presented a 5 hour “Follow the Signs” seminar in Denver, Colorado to “raise awareness about how Big Tobacco specifically targets Black communities.” She laid out the facts that slave labor made the tobacco industry rich and that now, half of all deaths in the Black community are from smoking-related diseases; more Blacks die from lung cancer than any other group in the U.S.; 72% of Blacks are exposed to secondhand smoke, compared to 50% of Whites and 45% of Hispanics; and that smoking or secondhand smoke plays a large part in the high rate of asthma amongst Black adults and children.
Wright finds the statistics disturbing and thinks the disparities have much to do with tobacco companies targeting “urban” areas which are referred to as the “focus” market of cigarette companies. She knows this very well as she was employed for a leading company as a tobacco industry manager “responsible for developing promotional programs for urban markets.” After four years of firsthand experience, in 2005 she kissed the industry good bye and joined NAATPN to begin spreading the word and sounding an alarm to Blacks across the country.
Many Blacks are unaware that cigarette companies were some of the first to advertise with Black media in the 1950s; that they study and learn everything about Blacks in order to devise advertising campaigns to “lure” new smokers as customers; that the companies, Wright said, will do anything to sell nicotine – even lie and practice deception, and that the industry “preys” on Blacks because there is no outcry and they know they can get away with it.
Wright went on to explain that there are three major companies: Philip Morris (PM), marketers of marlboro cigarettes sale; The Lorillard Company, producer of Newport, and RJ Reynolds (RJR),which boasts Kool as top seller. PM is the largest company, followed by RJR which Wright said is the one that targets Black customers the most.
RJR is the top seller of menthol-flavored cigarettes, the flavor preferred by the majority of Black smokers. The Kool and Newport brands are the leading menthols on the market but studies show these flavored smokes may be more hazardous than the standard flavor. Last year, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) pushed for legislation to ban menthol but, interestingly, President Barack Obama – himself a smoker – signed another smoking related bill into law last week. House Resolution 1256, entitled The Family Smoking Prevention Act requires that tobacco companies now answer to the Food and Drug Administration regarding cigarette ingredients but also in several other ways. Wright said the price of cigarettes may go up as a result of what is in the 80+ page bill and she encourages all to read it.
Based on HR 1256, menthol may be banned by 2011 but some observers question why other flavors were banned in the legislation but menthol was not. In an editorial published by Reuters.com, Paul Smalera called out CBC members who, despite their stand against menthol last year, still supported the new law. “Philip Morris’ parent company has donated more than $1.5 million to the caucus since 2002 and thousands more to individual members,” he wrote in “Cool, Refreshing Legislation for Philip Morris,” going on to suggest that the CBC is more concerned with big money than with standing for a ban against menthol. Smalera said 20 CBC members co-sponsored the bill; 10 did not sponsor but represent states “that oppose the bill because it puts their tobacco companies at a disadvantage to Philip Morris.” PM, he said, was a key part of drafting the legislation in the first place. The remaining CBC members did not sign off on the bill.
Philip Morris, Wright explained in her seminar, dominates the Caucasian or “non-focus” markets and marketing differences between focus and non-focus areas is seen in the excessive number of cigarette ads found on the exteriors of stores in Black communities, many of them placed at the eye level of children and teens rather than adults. It is rare that stores in White communities are cluttered with signage in the same way.
Even though the three leading companies all have youth smoking prevention programs, Wright views them as shams since most marketing by the tobacco giants is geared toward capturing the attention of youth. Kool developed a hip hop themed video game and a display box containing cigarette packs with images of deejays, people dancing, men with locs or hats turned to the side and posing in hip-hop stances. The ad text read: “DJs are the masters of Hip Hop, just like KOOL is the master of menthol. KOOL MIXX is our mark of respect for these Hip Hop players.”
Wright said the display was mailed out and that companies usually send their direct mailings during the summer or around holidays when children are more likely to be at home. Kool even sponsors summer time jazz festivals featuring artists popular to fans of R&B and Hip hop.
A disturbing and little known part of Wright’s workshop involved her sharing information about Nigger Hair Tobacco, popular in the early 1900s. She passed around a copy of an ad for the product which was sold in packs costing from .05 to .50 cents. “Our grandfathers knew this tobacco and gave the brand its name, NIGGER HAIR, because it was cut in those long, curly strands that make it such a wonderful, satisfactory pipe tobacco – slow burning, cool and fragrant,” the ad read. “That distinctive cut caused the old-time smokers to call it “NIGGER HAIR” and so it got its name.”
From the days of slavery, when Blacks were not only required to pick tobacco but were also bought with tobacco payments, to today, the industry appears to need the Black consumer or slave to survive. Wright even used a quote by Harriet Tubman to describe how she views her mission. “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”
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