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Tracing the racist tactics of the tobacco industry

Big Tobacco has a long history of targeting the Black community with predatory marketing and its racist tactics continue today.

In a calling to end Big Tobacco’s racism, truth partnered with Black community members and activists to launch its latest campaign Read Between the Lies. Led and promoted by Black voices, the campaign includes videos of people reading and reacting to actual quotes from tobacco industry executives revealing the deliberate and exploitive ways they target the Black community.

These tactics have serious consequences. African Americans have higher death rates from tobacco-related causes compared to other racial and ethnic groups – with more than 39,000 dying from tobacco-related cancers each year. The health consequences are especially severe now as COVID-19, which is also disproportionately affecting Black Americans, can carry greater risk of severe illness for tobacco users.

The examples highlighted in Read Between the Lies underscore how aggressive, exploitive tobacco industry tactics targeting the Black community have spanned decades and continue today.

A documented strategy

"We don't smoke this shit, we just sell it. We reserve the right to smoke for the young, the poor, the Black, and the stupid." That’s just one tobacco industry executive quote that can be found in the Truth Tobacco Industry Documents library and is featured in Read Between the Lies.

Aggressively targeting groups – especially young people, African Americans and low-income populations – for the more than 1,300 people who die each day from tobacco use has long been central to the tobacco industry playbook. Big Tobacco has sponsored cultural events, targeted direct mail promotions and placed advertising in publications and venues that are popular with Black audiences. 

Several studies have also found a greater number of tobacco advertisements and a larger presence of tobacco advertising in African American neighborhoods. For example, Truth Initiative researchers found that in predominantly Black neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. there were up to ten times more tobacco ads than in areas with fewer Black residents.

Making menthol black

As Read Between the Lies makes clear, it’s no accident that nearly 90% of African American smokers use menthol cigarettes, which are easier to smoke and harder to quit. Tobacco industry documents show that tobacco companies have a long history of specifically targeting African Americans with menthol cigarette advertising and promotions, including by sponsoring events like jazz and hip-hop festivals.

Menthol has been repeatedly exempted from legislation on flavored tobacco products, the result of massive tobacco industry lobbying efforts. Tobacco companies have made strategic financial contributions and worked to align themselves with Black leaders and politicians, and mounted huge opposition campaigns against local policy efforts to restrict menthol tobacco products.

[Watch “Black Lives / Black Lungs,” a documentary by former Truth Initiative Youth Activism Fellow Lincoln Mondy that explores the strategic infiltration of menthol tobacco products into the Black community.]

Truth Initiative has long called for a nationwide comprehensive ban on all menthol tobacco products – which 117 jurisdictions in the U.S. currently have – and continues to conduct research and policy analysis to inform and advance these efforts.

Infiltrating schools

Top e-cigarette JUUL, which has driven the youth vaping epidemic and is partly owned by tobacco giant Altria, is following in the predatory footsteps of Big Tobacco. Read Between the Lies exposes how the company funded an after-school program which allowed them access to Black youth.

JUUL programs targeted children as young as those in third grade by funding summer camps, visiting schools and paying community and church groups to distribute their materials, according to documents and testimony from Congressional hearings about JUUL’s role in the youth e-cigarette epidemic.