African-American Menthol Smokers Targeted
During the 1970s and 80s, the tobacco industry preyed on America’s inner cities. The makers of Newports, Kools, and Salems fought hard for market domination, aggressively targeting low income Blacks and more than doubling the number of African American menthol smokers.
A Boston jury recently awarded the family of Marie Evans $152 million in punitive and compensatory damages from Lorillard Tobacco Co. Because in the late fifties, Lorillard gave out free Newport cigarettes at the Orchard Park housing project and enticed children to smoke. Marie Evans was one of those children; she began smoking at age 13 and smoked for 40 years before dying of lung cancer at 54.
The lawsuit is believed to be the first of hopefully many that will hold cigarette companies responsible for targeting Black children by giving away cigarettes in urban neighborhoods.
Imagine the “burden of proof” submitted into evidence that would lead a jury in the United States of America to place the value of the life of a Black woman at $152 million dollars.
47,000 Blacks Killed Per Year by Tobacco Related Diseases
Though Blacks start smoking later in life, and smoke fewer cigarettes per day, they have a harder time quitting. Big Tobacco wants us to believe that menthol is simply a coincidental “taste preference” for Blacks.
They want us to believe it is not a starter product for the tens of thousands of Black youth who are seduced by menthol’s smooth soothing flavor. Big Tobacco wants us to believe its claims that menthol’s addictive chemical properties have no additional morbidity implications for the 47,000 Black folks who die every year from tobacco related diseases.
While Big Tobacco can deny their predatory practices and make their own absurd legal and scientific arguments before the FDA, they still desperately need Black front groups to make the case that Black smokers are being unfairly treated when they receive equal protection under health policy laws.
This relationship, between the tobacco industry and Black leadership groups, was documented in a 2004 research paper entitled Smoking with The Enemy: Black leadership groups and the tobacco industry (Yerger & Malone, 2004). The article written by two researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, used previously secret but now publicly available internal tobacco industry documents released during litigation to document how the tobacco industry gave money to and systematically cultivated relationships with almost every major African American organization. These relationships were cultivated for 3 purposes;
- to increase tobacco use among African Americans by creating and maintaining positive images of tobacco and tobacco companies,
- to use African Americans to defend tobacco industry policy positions, and
- to defuse public health efforts from within African American communities.
Over the years, many African American organizations have unwittingly become “Hos” for Big Tobacco, not seeming to fully grasp that their good names give the tobacco industry respectability and help maintain the deadly silence that is killing Black people.
However there are others who knowingly take the money and run. Getting back to Ghetto Physics, these organizations actually pimp and ho at the same time.
They ho by running interference for Big Tobacco, by putting a Black face on the same old tobacco industry rhetoric and they simultaneously pimp their own people by providing Big Tobacco entrée to their communities, offering up their young and old alike to the wolves in wolves clothing, no pretense of a sheep here.
CORE, NBCC and NOBLE Benefited from Big Tobacco
The three groups who surfaced this time are The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the National Black Chamber of Commerce (NBCC) and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE). These groups urged the TPSAC to consider the negative implications of a ban (Blacks might stop smoking) and to discount any scientifically unsubstantiated evidence on menthol.
In the past all three of these groups have benefited from Big Tobacco’s largesse and in fairness it must be said that at one point in time the tobacco and alcohol industries were the only corporations interested in giving money to the Black community.
But it is a new millennium and that hasn’t been the case for decades. Frankly we don’t know what has transpired in recent years between Big Tobacco and these groups.
But it is certainly interesting to note that with record unemployment, foreclosures, the widening academic achievement gap, health inequities and the huge, across the board, economic set back of Black America, that these Black leadership groups would find it important to devote their precious time, energy, and limited resources to ensuring that Black folks are not kept from their deadly menthol cigarettes. What a sad day.
Especially in light of the just released U.S. Surgeon General’s report on smoking. Dr. Regina M. Benjamin, who lost her own mother to lung cancer, is on the case.
CORE, NBCC, and NOBLE might want to speak with her. Her report states that there is no safe level for smoking, that damage to smokers and non-smokers alike is immediate, that cigarettes are designed for addiction, and that people need to stop smoking anyway they can. Taking out the menthol would be a great start; the poison wouldn’t go down quite so easy.
African American tobacco control experts want Black leadership groups; to stand up for prevention programs for Black youth and effective cessation services for the millions of overburdened stressed out Black folks who desperately want to stop smoking; to get the tobacco industry out of Black communities; to make elected officials and health departments take these issues seriously and provide adequate resources and attention to deal with them; and to stand up so Blacks will no longer be a footnote and a bargaining chip in negotiations on the health policy needs of white America. ___________________________________________________________
The tobacco industry and their front groups are quick to point out that cigarettes are a legal product for adult consumers. And that is true, but it is equally true, that in 2006, Judge Gladys Kessler of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia found Philip Morris (Altria), R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co., British American Tobacco Ltd., Lorillard Tobacco Co., and Counsel for Tobacco Research-U.S.A. guilty of federal racketeering under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The only difference between these tobacco companies and the MAFIA is that Big Tobacco is incorporated and that they use the magic of marketing and the power of addiction to get their victims to voluntarily kill themselves. In her 1,653 page ruling, Judge Kessler wrote that the “defendants have marketed and sold their lethal products with zeal, with deception, with a single-minded focus on their financial success, and without regard for the human tragedy or social costs that success exacted.” She stated further, “The evidence clearly establishes that the Defendants have not ceased engaging in unlawful activity…” Big Tobacco sought to appeal her decision, but it was upheld in 2009.
It is unacceptable for African American organizations to represent the interest of or take money from the industry responsible for 47,000 Black deaths a year. 47,000 Black deaths is equal to the deaths of 9/11 occurring every month of the year, plus one every week during Black History month. 47,000 Black deaths a year is more than all of the other preventable causes (AIDS, homicides, and accidents) of death combined. Crack cocaine has ravaged our families and our communities; we have a visceral reaction when we even hear the word “crack.”
It is violent, it is immediate, it is in your face. We must learn to feel the same way about Kools, Newports, and Salem cigarettes because they are responsible for the 47,000 Black people who quietly disappear every year. More importantly we must feel that way about the industry that makes it happen. Big Tobacco knows that their business is simply a numbers game.
The more young people who can be enticed and addicted the more customers for them. The more they can delay, stall, and confuse the public health process, i.e. banning menthol, restricting predatory targeting, or increasing cigarette taxes, the more time they have to addict another generation. Black leadership groups have no business helping them.
Carol McGruder is the co-chairperson and a founding member of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATCLC), formed to save the 47,300 Black lives lost every year to tobacco related illnesses.
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