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Racism & Injustice

How racism, injustice, and the tobacco industry go hand in hand

Published Apr 15, 2022
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The tobacco industry’s modern-day exploitation of and discrimination against California’s diverse communities spans a century of predatory practices in the name of profit.1 2 3 Internal documents from Big Tobacco outline their strategies – many of which are shocking attempts to peddle deadly products to the vulnerable and underserved populations by way of product discounts and manipulative advertising. They even gave away free products to youth in housing projects in the past.4 The tobacco industry’s tactics masquerade as support for diverse communities to celebrate their unique cultures and common experiences.

Unfortunately, the tactics have worked. Big Tobacco aggressively targeted specific communities and, as a result, some populations have higher rates of tobacco use, experience greater secondhand smoke exposure at work and at home, and have higher rates of tobacco-related disease than the general population.5 6

The tobacco industry develops its products, pricing strategies, and marketing practices to target specific populations in very sophisticated ways. Studies have found links between the density of tobacco retail outlets and tobacco use in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, African American communities, and youth populations.7 8 The number of tobacco retailers and their proximity to schools in California urban areas has been associated with experimental smoking among high school students.9

Contrary to claims by the tobacco industry that the promotion of its products is not based on race or ethnicity, many unique tobacco products like menthol cigarettes, flavored e-cigarettes, little cigars, and “organic” cigarettes are targeted toward specific populations like American Indian, African American, or Latino. One study even showed targeted advertising in California neighborhoods near high schools exposed African Americans to more promotions and lower prices for the leading brand of menthol cigarettes.10

The tobacco industry has a history of misconduct and misdirection. The industry funded misleading research to show that people with mental health conditions could use tobacco products to relieve symptoms.11  The industry has even distributed free cigarettes in psychiatric facilities.12 Big Tobacco has also financially supported primary and secondary schools, universities, and colleges, and even scholarship programs for Hispanic/Latino communities to create the illusion that they’re supporting the future of the community.13

Big Tobacco mocks real the real work of corporate social responsibility. Tobacco companies were among the first corporations to financially “support” LGBTQIA+ communities by advertising in LGBTQIA+ publications and sponsoring community and Pride events. However, they also use marketing strategies designed to exploit feelings of isolation and despair the LGBTQIA+ community experiences due to systemic discrimination by promoting smoking as acceptance into LGBTQIA+ life.14

Co-opting cultural traditions, ceremonial practices, and generalizing entire communities are all part of the tobacco industry’s playbook. They appropriate American Indian cultures to sell their deadly products, preying on ancient traditions, funding powwows, and promoting brands like Natural American Spirit in the name of profit, not to show meaningful support for American Indian communities.15 16

Communities that are predominantly low-income are highly profitable in the eyes of Big Tobacco, so they target them in hard-hitting ways, like pushing an endless supply of cheap and easily accessible products and keeping them flowing into these communities to keep people hooked.17

A tobacco executive stated that Asian American populations would be a profitable target due to “this community being generally predisposed toward smoking,” insinuating all people who identify as Asian are exactly alike when it comes to getting easily hooked on their deadly products.18

Even rural communities can’t escape the big city thinking of Big Tobacco, which warps rural masculine ideals by depicting rugged images of cowboys, hunters, and racecar drivers in their advertising, making people living in rural communities some of Big Tobacco’s best customers. Because of these practices, rural counties have some of the highest smoking rates in California,19 and rural residents start smoking at an earlier age.20

Big Tobacco’s predatory tactics perpetuate and leverage injustice and worsen the health disparities already experienced by the communities they target. All Californians deserve to live free from the harms of tobacco use. Ending the tobacco industry’s predatory targeting isn’t just about health — it’s about creating an equitable California for everyone.

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Hold the industry accountable

California has already protected people from other harmful products, and it's time to hold the tobacco industry to the same standards.