by Adeeba Folami
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.
La Tanisha Wright sits beside a KOOL MIXX promotional display containing 4 packs of free cigarettes with hip hop themed designs. To the right of the display is a Kool & Kustom Hot Wheels toy car. Green and blue are Kool cigarettes signature colors as are the interlocking O's. Even if an item (like the Hot Wheel) is not tagged as a Kool cigarette product, the colors give it away. (photos by Lens of Ansar)
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; 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. An RJR executive was quoted in a 1993 major magazine editorial making a shocking statement in relation to his company’s products and those who bought them. “We don’t smoke the sh*t, we reserve that right for the poor, the young, the black and the stupid.”
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.
(l-r) Denver Public Health reps Johnn Young and Tracey Maruyama hold tobacco products which companies pattern after children's or women's items to make them more appealing to youth. Young holds in one hand a Skoal Berry Blend Tobacco container looking very similar to Icebreaker Sour Berry Candy. He also holds a Skoal Apple Blend product which looks like the Hubba Bubba Sour Green Apple Bubble Gum container. Maruyama holds Virgina Slims Superlines Light Cigarettes which look like a container which could store the Cover Girl Lip Slicks next to them. She also has a box of Jolly Rancher Fruit Chews which at first glance could be mistaken for a pack of Camel cigarettes which make use of similar colors and box shape.
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.”
Many Blacks are unaware of the true historical links between tobacco and Blacks in America, devastating ties which continue today. (Internet photo)
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.”
What some heard from Wright deeply affected them and almost moved them to tears. “I don’t know whether to cry or get sick to my stomach,” Leslie Matthews said. “It’s really disgusting to see this; to know what’s going on and not seeing more programs out there to break our addiction to tobacco.” The 58-year-old noted that her parents and grandfather smoked and she started in her early teens, not quitting until her late 20s. Her father and grandfather later died of lung cancer, even though her father did not start to smoke until he joined the military during World War II. She felt angered after remembering Wright’s lesson that free cigarettes were given to Blacks during the Civil War and other U.S. wars. “I just want to cry,” Matthews said, adding that young people would never start smoking if they knew the history. “A part of me is angry, not only at the tobacco companies but ourselves. We’re always running around talking about genocide; well at some point we have to take control of our own lives.” She plans to be part of any organized efforts to promote awareness and the NAATPN mission.
Yvette Anderson was also moved and motivated to share what she learned with everyone she knew. “I had some awareness of tobacco marketing in the Black community but this really brought home the kind of deceptive practices that big tobacco [uses] to market, especially to our youth,” she said. She has never smoked but is sure some smokers would decide to quit if they knew the true and historic ties between tobacco and Blacks. “Because it’s an addiction, it would be hard for people to suddenly change but I think a percentage of smokers probably would stop.”
NAATPN is based in Durham, North Carolina. For more information, visit www.naatpn.org or call 1-888-7NAATPN, ext. 3.
© 2009 – All Rights Reserved – The Black House News
Unlimited online distribution allowed with acknowledgement of bhonline.org as the source
Tags: barack obama smoker, black african american smokers, cigarette companies, cigarettes, congressional black caucus, fda, focus communities tobacco, hr 1256 family smoking prevention act, kool mixx, la tanisha wright, lorillard, menthol, naatpn, national african american tobacco prevention network, newport, nigger hair tobacco, philip morris, rj reynolds, slavery tobacco, tobacco companies