By Salim Muwakkil
JUNE 22, 1998: In 1994, cigarette makers attempted to parlay black youth's fascination with the martyred Malcolm X into big profits. In the wake of Spike Lee's brilliant marketing campaign for his movie Malcolm X, T-shirts and baseball caps bearing the "X" logo were omnipresent in the black community. So Star Tobacco Corporation began to manufacture a menthol cigarette called X. Packaged in the red, black and green colors of the black nationalist movement, the cigarettes were marketed in 20 states before a coalition of outraged African-American community groups successfully forced the manufacturers to discontinue the brand.
Anti-tobacco activists successfully beat back this and a few other clumsy attempts to push nicotine to black teens, but the cigarette industry has had the last laugh. A recently released study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the consistent decline in smoking once seen among African-American youth has reversed dramatically. While a 1991 poll found that only 12.6 percent of African-American high school students admitted to smoking cigarettes in the past month, that number jumped to 22.7 percent in 1997. That's an 80 percent increase in just six years.
There are several reasons. The most obvious is the marketing savvy employed by the tobacco companies, especially when targeting black youth. But the credibility cigarette makers gained by supporting black organizations and the tobacco industry's heavy advertising presence in black publications also have had an impact. And a trend among black youth of mixing tobacco with marijuana has probably worsened the problem. With smoking the leading preventable cause of death in the United States -- and with 50,000 African-Americans dying of smoking-related illnesses every year -- these new trends are a cause for alarm.
The sharp increase in smoking rates among black teens during the past few years is particularly disturbing because, for many years, smoking rates among young blacks had been going down -- a major victory, because African-Americans are still more likely to smoke than any ethnic group except Native Americans.
"In 1976, there was no difference between blacks and whites," says Michael Ericksen, director of the CDC's office on smoking and health. "Then there was this huge divergence, and black youth began to view smoking as a 'white thing.' Now it has turned around, and we don't know what happened."
Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) thinks he knows: the tobacco industry stepped up its efforts to hook young blacks. Last February, Conyers released a list of documents to support his claim. Among them was a 1973 document from the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation showing that the bulk of sales increases in the company's Kool brand was among 16- to 25-year-olds, a demographic that would "soon be three times as important to Kool." A Lorillard Tobacco research study noted that in 1978 the success of its Newport brand was largely due to black high school students.
Although these documents are now two decades old, they help establish the context for what's going on now. As National Medical Association President Nathaniel Murdock told the House Subcommittee on Health & the Environment during testimony last March, "Recently released documents related to the deliberate practices to capture African-American smokers do not present the entire picture as to how the tobacco industry promoted and continues to promote nicotine addiction."
The NMA, the country's largest organization of black physicians, and other anti-tobacco groups argue that the industry should be required to fully disclose how it targeted African-Americans. It charges that, among other things, the billboard advertisements currently saturating black communities are specifically aimed at minority youth.
The Summit Health Coalition, a national network of organizations focused on African-American health issues, notes that 20 percent of the advertising budget for Kool cigarettes was dedicated to marketing targeted at African-Americans, even though blacks represent just 12 percent of the population. The group charges that young minorities have been targeted more aggressively as general levels of smoking have declined. Murdock suggests that the tobacco industry should be made accountable for the inordinate number of deaths in the African-American community due to smoking. "They should also donate to the traditional black medical schools for further research and prevention of cancer of the lungs and other related diseases," he says.
But some anti-smoking activists don't think the tobacco companies are the only people to blame. In fact, some are scathingly critical of major black institutions for their role in pushing -- or at least condoning -- nicotine addiction. Black newspapers, for example, have had a long, cooperative and profitable relationship with the tobacco industry. Cigarette manufacturers were among the first businesses to advertise in black publications, said Robert Bogle, publisher of The Philadelphia Tribune and former president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a trade group representing 250 black-owned papers.
When evidence of smoking's health dangers began surfacing, though, black newspapers were conspicuously silent. And as the tobacco industry came under increasing attack by anti-smoking activists, it found a safe haven in many black newspapers. Seldom were anti-smoking articles published in NNPA newspapers.
"Tobacco companies were our friends before anybody else was," says Bogle. "A lot of groups have condemned us for taking those ads, but for many of our newspapers, it was a matter of economic survival. And as long as it's legal to grow it and smoke it, why should we be left out?"
Tobacco ads now represent 60 percent of ad space for most black newspapers, said current NNPA President Dorothy Leavell. "Tobacco ads influence us," she said. "We've pretty much taken the position that people should have the freedom to make their own decision about whether or not they want to smoke."
The tobacco industry also markets its product by underwriting events in the black community and by sponsoring conventions of the major civil rights organizations, including the National Urban League, the NAACP and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. The College Fund (formerly the United Negro College Fund) is a recipient of some of the tobacco companies' most generous grants. The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation receives thousands in tobacco cash. Cultural organizations, including the Dance Theater of Harlem and the National Black Arts Festival, regularly receive generous donations from the industry. The Kool Jazz Festival, which travels across the country during the summer, is a salient example of tobacco marketers' pervasive presence in the black community.
Civil rights groups are attempting to distance themselves from tobacco money, but that's no easy task. In the past, these groups have justified their indulgence by arguing that tobacco companies are attempting to balance the harm they do with the money they give. Few still make that argument.
"We're trying to wean ourselves away from this source of revenue," Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League, recently told the Chicago radio station WVON. "And, quite frankly, it's not easy. Without additional sources [of income], we have to scale back on some of our important projects."
Still, tobacco is so ingrained into black life that few African-American leaders express appropriate concern, said Makani Themba, co-director of the Oakland-based Praxis Project, which targets tobacco marketing. Tobacco companies fund black music, art, concerts, schools and churches. They give money to African-American family reunion groups and sponsor family reunion storytelling contests for children. What's perhaps most tragic is that streets in black communities are full of larger-than-life images glamorizing these deadly products.
Another part of the problem is black youth smoking marijuana in hollowed-out cigars, or "blunts." The practice is said to have started in Jamaica, where marijuana is routinely mixed with tobacco, and it took hold in New York City in the mid-80s. Health experts worry that this new trend has provoked a "reverse gateway" effect, bringing marijuana smokers to tobacco rather than vice-versa. Although cigar makers like Havatampa (makers of the popular Phillies Blunts) deny that they intentionally exploit this clandestine trend, critics are not so sure.
"I see ads for Phillies Blunts in some stores in Philadelphia that clearly seem to be capitalizing on the kids' blunts craze," says Charyn Sutton, co-founder of the National Association of African-Americans for Positive Imagery.
A few black groups are fighting tobacco advertising. Several anti-tobacco organizations have started "white out" campaigns, defacing billboards that glamorize smoking. And Conyers is working within the legal system to make black concerns a vital part of tobacco negotiations in Washington. Because we know part of the blame lies squarely at the feet of the tobacco industry, argues Conyers, "there is compelling need for blacks to be included in the settlement talks."
That agreement, which is on the verge of collapse, addresses a variety of issues -- including the Food & Drug Administration's authority to regulate tobacco advertising and promotion, and youth access to tobacco products -- in exchange for giving the tobacco industry immunity from future lawsuits. But it doesn't acknowledge the tobacco industry's special efforts to induce African-Americans to smoke, even though it's important for black America's public health that the settlement do so.
As African-Americans become increasingly aware of the harmful presence of tobacco in their communities, their participation in the settlement talks is vital. But whether or not that involvement leads to any substantial change in the industry or among black youths remains to be seen. .
This article first appeared in In These Times.
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