By Dr. Phillip Gardiner | Special to The OBSERVER
It’s hard to believe that with the amount of damage that the tobacco industry has inflicted on the Black community, that there are still Black organizations accepting their funding. By doing so, these Black organizations enable the tobacco industry to portray themselves as allies to our community. They help silence our voices and efforts aimed at encouraging policymakers to take specific steps to protect our people, thus becoming complicit in our death and disease.
The problem with accepting these funds is that the tobacco industry has a history of targeting and exploiting vulnerable communities, especially Black communities, through predatory advertising and marketing tactics. Our people must be aware that accepting money from the tobacco industry contributes to the ongoing exploitation of our people through their predatory practices of marketing menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars.
The African American Control Tobacco Council is calling on Black organizations to be united in our fight against Big Tobacco and help save Black lives. Tobacco companies are actively opposing public health measures aimed at protecting Black Americans from the harm caused by their products.
A 1953 study by Roper, B.W. found that only 5 percent of African Americans smoked menthol cigarettes. A 1968 poll of People’s Cigarette Smoking Habits and Attitudes by Philip Morris showed that menthol use among Blacks had almost tripled to 14 percent. A report by Brown and Williamson in 1978 found that it had tripled again to 42 percent. By the 2000’s, over 80 percent of Black smokers used menthol cigarettes.
Today, 85 percent of Black adults and 94 percent of Black youth who smoke are using menthol products. These striking statistics arise from the success of the industry’s predatory marketing of these products in our community, where there are more advertisements, and most disturbingly, menthol cigarettes are cheaper compared to other communities. In 2022, the use of cigarettes, cigars and cigarillos was highest among Black youth. These practices, coupled with buying the silence of some Black spokespersons for the past 50 years, have led to Black Americans dying disproportionately from heart attacks, lung cancer, strokes and other tobacco related diseases.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture
Across this country, tobacco companies are vigorously opposing public health policies that would protect Black Americans from these products, specifically the proposed FDA ban on menthol products. These same companies continue to strategically provide monies to Black institutions to create the illusion of being socially responsible and invested in our well-being. Black institutions must reject funding from or any form of partnership with tobacco and vaping companies and hold them accountable for the harmful effects they’ve had and continue to have on public and mental health, the environment and social justice.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is one of those institutions. They currently list Altria as a member of their Culture’s Corporate Leadership Council. It should be noted that Altria owns a 35 percent stake in JUUL Labs, the e-cigarette company that malevolently popularized e-cigarette usage among America’s youth. We are calling upon the museum to divest their funding portfolio of all tobacco industry contributions moving forward.
The museum undertakes highly commendable work to document African American life, history and culture. However, we must bear in mind that American history is forever interwoven with the enslavement of African people on tobacco plantations. Unfortunately, traces of that exploitation continue to exist to this present day, principally taking the form of marketing menthol cigarettes and flavored little cigars in the Black community.
The museum is not alone, it is only one example, and we are challenging all Black organizations currently accepting funding from the tobacco industry to divest. If current efforts to protect present and future generations are not realized, African Americans will continue to pay the disproportionate price of death and disease for generations to come.
A New Road Forward
In 2021, the AATCLC was joined by the Action on Smoking and Health, the American Medical Association, and the National Medical Association when we sued the FDA to compel them to take menthol off the U.S. market. Imagine our nation’s medical doctors joining with us to sue our own government to take these deadly addictive products off the market. This August, the FDA is slated to make a final ruling to take all menthol and flavored products off the market. We have a lot of work to do to ensure this happens and a large part of that is having the support of Black institutions.
Black people have been at the head of this fight, and we have made great strides in protecting the next generation from the industry’s emerging tobacco and nicotine products. In November, California went to the polls and soundly rejected the tobacco industry’s attempt to undermine Senate Bill 793, making their state the second after Massachusetts to pass legislation to take menthol and all flavored tobacco products off the market. We are working hard to encourage all states to follow suit.
Now is the time to take a stand and be a part of the solution: Stop taking tobacco industry money.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Phillip Gardiner is the Co-Chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council. The AATCLC works at the intersection of public health policy and social injustice. www.SavingBlackLives.org