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Kiss of death

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Kiss of death:
African Americans and the Tobacco Industry,

Claudia Morain
11/15/93 American Medical News 13,
American Medical Association,
Monday, November 15, 1993;
Vol. 36, No. 43.


Around noon on a July day in the tiny town of Mineola, Tex., dozens of prominent townsfolk gathered outside an old hotel. They had come to pay a hero's tribute -- complete with medallion, proclamation, and the first key ever made to Mineola -- to their most famous native son, Willie Brown. Brown rose from poverty and segregation in the 1940s to become one of the most powerful state legislators in the country. For more than a decade, the black Democrat has been speaker of the California Assembly. Harold Plunk, Mineola's chamber of commerce president, praised Brown's fortitude. Mayor Ralph Bruner heralded him as a role model for young people. No one, however, mentioned the tobacco money...

According to a study by the University of California, San Francisco, Brown pocketed $221.367 from tobacco interests during 1991 and 1992 -- four times more than Sen. Wendell Ford (D, Ky.), the largest congressional recipient during the period. The industry gave Brown the money as it girded for battle against a bill to ban smoking in virtually all enclosed public spaces in California, where one in eight Americans lives. Its supporters blame Brown for the measure's failure. Brown declined to comment on his industry contributions or his role in the smoking ban's defeat.

His relationship with the tobacco industry exemplifies a decades-old interdependence between tobacco and black America, ties few have challenged in the past. That's changing now, as awareness grows of the heavy toll tobacco takes on minorities -- and of the industry's heavy-handed efforts to lure more of them to smoke. Increasingly, black physicians and other minority leaders are denouncing tobacco, an industry that has done more both to benefit and bury African-Americans than perhaps any other enterprise.

In July, the National Medical Assn. and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched one of the biggest public anti-smoking projects ever aimed specifically at blacks. The $200,000 public-advertising campaign encourages blacks to kick cigarettes. It also calls on African-American organizations to re-examine their ties to tobacco, and to take a more active part in the anti-smokiong movement.

"Young people in the African-American community are being targeted by the tobacco industry; their neighborhoods are filled with billboards showing smoking as pleasant and glamorous," says Leonard E. Lawrence, MD, president of the NMA, which represents 17,000 minority physicians. "We've asked some of our brother and sister organizations to take a look at the financial support they may receive from tobacco corporations, and to consider that this may give a double message to young people about what is and isn't acceptable."

Special relationships

The double-edged sword of tobacco's largesse toward blacks dates at least to 1938, when William Reynolds, R.J.'s brother, donated money to found the Kate Bitting Reynolds Hospital for blacks in then segregated Winston-Salem, N.C., home of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. The industry has been killing African-Americans with kindness ever since. Cigarette companies put black models in ads well ahead of most of corporate America. They were among the first national companies to advertise in black-oriented media. Long before the term "affirmative action" was coined, they boasted a better-than-average record of hiring and promoting blacks.

White supermacists took notice. In the 1950s, they singled out products by Philip Morris Cos. for a boycott, attacking the company for, among other "race-mixing" activities, placing blacks in executive jobs.

The boycott did not dissuade tobacco's wooing of blacks, and in 1950, the proportion of black male smokers exceeded that of white men for the first time. In 1960, smoking rates among black women overtook white women's.

Epidemiologists estimate that by the year 2000, smoking prevalence among African-Americans will be 25%, compared with 21% for whites, in part because blacks have less success in quitting smoking than whites. An estimated 29% of blacks and 25.5% of whites smoke today. Tobacco has maintained a special relationship with many of the best-known black organizations.

For example, former Urban League President Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., who headed President Clinton's transition team, sits on the RJR Nabisco Holdings Corp. board. Raymond Pritchard, recently retired as chairman and CEO of Brown and Williamson Co., sat on the board of the National Urban League from 1986 to 1992. Hugh Cullman, a one-time vice chairman of Philip Morris, served as chairman of the United Negro College Fund from 1987 to 1989. Whitney Young, the late Urban League chief, sat on the board of Philip Morris. His widow, Margaret B. Young, inherited the chair.

The industry has invested millions to identify itself with civil-rights causes and black America's best-loved music, arts and sports, according to more than a decade of research by investigative reporters and anti-smoking groups such as Doctors Ought to Care and the Advocacy Institute. The activists monitor black media advertising, examine public records from tobacco companies and recipient organizations, and exchange information with other health advocates via an international computer bulletin board.

Among the outreach efforts disclosed by their research: Philip Morris has supported Operation PUSH, the Rev. Jesse Jackson's civil rights organization. The tobacco giant has brought together presidents of black colleges for a Martin Luther King Jr., birthday remembrance, produced half-hour radio programs to celebrate Black History Month, and commemorated a Bill of Rights anniversary with ads featuring prominent African-American leaders. It backs the Dance Theater of Harlem and sponsors rhythm-and-blues concerts, heavily advertised in black-oriented media, in cities with large black populations. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, an RJR Nabisco subsidiary, has saluted black scientists inventors in magazine ads, sponsored African-American golf, bowling and softball tournaments, and provided entertainment at street festivals in black communities.

Brown and Williamson, manufacturer of Kool cigarettes, a mentholated cigarette popular among blacks, has backed the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the country's most prominent black think tank. Kool Achiever Awards, launched in 1990, honor those who make a difference in inner-city neighborhoods: The company donates $2,000 on behalf of each finalist to a nonprofit community-service organization.

Says Harold Freeman, MD, chief of surgery at Harlem Hospital in New York and a former president of the American Cancer Society: "Early on, the industry began to offer money when no other was there, and now these groups are just as addicted to the money as smokers are to the cigarettes."

Despite their generosity, tobacco companies contend they have not specially targeted minorities. Explains Sheila Banks-McKenzie, a Philip Morris Spokeswoman: "All of our promotions in marketing are geared to adults who smoke and that certainly includes minority markets. They are consumers. But we have no programs specifically geared to the minority community." Ethical dilemma

To critics, the tobacco industry is buying innocence by association. But others argue minority groups should take the money, so long as no strings are attached. They contend few other funding sources exist for worthy causes and cultural programs, especially in a recession. What's more, they accuse their critics of hypocrisy, nothing that several women's groups long welcomed contributions from Playboy Magazine, while environmental groups have accepted money from companies like Exxon Corp.

Some charitable and health organizations also take money from tobacco companies.

For example, the RJR Nabisco Foundation's 1990 tax return lists a $900,000 contribution to Bowman Gray School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, named for an early Reynolds tobaccor exevutive. United Way chapters took more than $700,000 fom Philip Morris irn 1990, according to internal corporate documents obtained by Alan Blum, MD, founder of Doctoes Ought to Care. rThe same documents show that Bronx Lebano Hospital in New York City received $25,000; the Cystic Fibrosis Foundatrion and American Red Cross accepted $20,000 apiece; and the Medical College of Wisconsin accepted $10,000.

The AMA, which does not accept tobacco-industry money, does take funds from tobacco-company subsidiaries for public-health campaigns. The blact groups seem reluctant to discuss tobacco contributions. The United Negro College Fund declined numerous requests from American Medical News for comment.

At the National Urban League president and chief exevutive officer John E. Jacobs issued a prepared statement:

"The National Urban League accepts voluntary contributions from many sources, including a wide range of corporate supporters. We hold all corporations socially responsible for the support of programs to assit African-Americans in the acheivement of social and ecnomic equality. The alcohol and tobacco industry is not exempt from this responsibility as long as it is legal in the United States."

Of the three groups, only the NAACP agreed to an interview. "You don't slap your friends around, because it's been a tough go to get corporate friends," says Gilbert Jonas, director of program resources. "There is a loyalty to the people who were with us when it was hard." Jonas concedes, however, that tobacco contributions are increasingly problematic as the NAACP steps up efforts to improve African-American health. He says the group is hiring its first health director, and has a new health committee, headed by two physicians, who report to the board of directors.

"We have tewo cross-currents coming into conflict, and it will happen -- it's gpoing to filter upward from the health committee and the local branches. They [NACCP leaders] will have to face it directly as an issue. They're going to have to decide whether to continue accepting the contributions and, if so, on what terms."

To health advocates, the choice is clear.

African-American groups should actively pursue alternate funding sources to replace tobacco money, says Reed V. Tuckson, MD, president of Charles R. Drew University of Medicine & Science, a predominately black medical school in Los Angeles.

"It is a reality of American life that institutions concerned with African-Americans and other minorities are almost always institutions that struggle for daily survival," Dr. Tuckson says. "African-American groups are struggling with the toughest problems in America, and struggling withoutr much help.

"But there can be no question that cigarettes and tobacco-related illness account for a devastating health consequence to black and other minority communities. The magnitude of the threat of this product is such that I believe it supersedes all other considerations, and makes the moral and ethical imperative fairlu clear."=

John Wiley Price, a black Dallas County, Texas, commissioner and leading anti-tobacco activists, puts it more bluntly: "I've been very critical of these organizations. To me, it's clear-cut. They're whores. And they're taking blood money."

Black backlash

"Uptown' ignited the new black backlash against tobacco. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco spent a reported $10 million in 1989 developing the new brand, a high-tar, high-nicotine menthol cigarette tailored to the tastes of black smokers.

When the Rev. Jesse W. Brown Jr., a black Philadelphia pastor, read in the Wall Street Journal that the cigarette would be test-marketed in his city's black neighborhoods, he was outraged. Brown founded the Uptown Coalition for Tobacco Control and Public Health, which succeeded in killing Uptown.

"What an industry has done in the past may be laudable and applaudable, but it does not give them permission to kill us today," he says. "I have to bury enough people in my community who die of cancer because of the tobacco industry."

In 1991, fresh from their Uptown victory, Brown and other members of the Uptown Coalition organized a meeting in Greensboro, N.C., of black anti-tobacco and alcohol activists from Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Greensboro and Milwaukee. A new organization, the National Assn. of African-Americans for Positive Imagery was formed.

The NAAAPI's first action: simultaneous press conferences in six cities to protest "Hang Time," a chewing gum by Wrigley's Amurol Products Co. Packaged like chewing tobacco, Hang Time carried Michael Jordan's picture. It has since been discontinued.

This summer, after months of discussions with outdoor advertising executives, Brown "blackwashed" an eight-sheet advertisement for Kool cigarettes plastered on the side of a building. Surveys of cities from Seattle to St. Louis consistently find greater numbers of tobacco billboards per square mile in minority neighborhoods than in white neighborhoods. In one 19-block stretch of a poor black area in Philadelphia, Brown counted 73 billboards, all but seven of which advertised tobacco or alcohol.

He has also organized trade-in days, on which people can bring their Kool caps, Salem T-shirts and other tobacco-company giveaways and get a T-shirt with a positive health message in return. "We're asking people to stop being human billboards for the tobacco industry," he says. In New York, the Rev. Calvin D. Butts III, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church and an NAAAPI member, pickets Philip Morris headquarters and whitewashes tobacco billboards.

In Dallas, Price, who refuses tobacco contributions, boasts he has whitewashed 25 billboards over the past 18 months in his south Dallas district, a 14-square-mile district with about 200,000 people, 90% of them black. Both Price and Brown were arrested. Charges against Brown were dropped; Price's case remains in the courts.

The backlash ignited by Uptown culminated this summer with the announcement of the NMA-CDC media campaign. It uses images of civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, drawing contrasts between their heroic lives and the needless deaths caused by smoking.

The ads feature a toll-free number, (800) CDC-1311, which smokers can call for a free booklet on how to quit.

"It is hard to fight an industry that gives money and jobs to black people, because we need money and jobs," the booklet says. "But we must think about the cost to us in sickness and death."

Health activists hope that their efforts will pressure black organizations and politicians to cut their tobacco ties.

Says Jesse Brown, "Willie Brown and the others believe they can accept the money and their political or economic base will not be threatened. Well, we have to threaten that."

 
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Professor Vernellia R. Randall
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The University of Dayton School of Law
300 College Park 
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Email: randall@udayton.edu

 

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