"They used to make us pick it. Now they want us to smoke it." -Rap
song used in California public-advertising campaign
According to a study by the University of California at San Francisco,
Willie Brown, the black Democrat who is the speaker of the California Assembly,
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 the money to Brown as it girded for battle against
a bill to ban smoking in virtually all enclosed public spaces in California,
the state 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.
Last July, the National Medical Association 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 individual 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-smoking 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 Dr. Leonard E. Lawrence, president
of the National Medical Association, 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 in
our community about what is and isn't acceptable."
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.
And white supremacists took notice. In the 1950s, they singled out Philip
Morris products 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 percent, compared to 21 percent for whites,
in part because blacks have less success quitting smoking than whites.
An estimated 29 percent of blacks and 25.5 percent of whites smoke today.
The tobacco 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
activists at Doctors Ought to Care (DOC), the Advocacy Institute and elsewhere.
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 in cities
with large black populations.
R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, an RJR Nabisco subsidiary, has saluted black
scientists and 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, 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.
"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," says Dr. Harold Freeman, chief of surgery at Harlem Hospital
in New York and a former president of the American Cancer Society.
Despite their generosity, tobacco companies contend they have not specially
"All of our promotions in marketing are geared to adults who smoke,
and that certainly includes minority markets. They are consumers," says
Sheila Banks-McKenzie, a Philip Morris spokeswoman. "But we have no programs
specifically geared to the minority community."
To critics, the tobacco industry is buying innocence by association.
But others argue that minority groups should take the money, as long as
no strings are attached.
What's more, they accuse their critics of hypocrisy, pointing out that
several women's groups long welcomed contributions from Playboy magazine,
while environmental groups have accepted money from the likes of Exxon
Some charitable and health organizations also take money from tobacco
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 tobacco executive. United Way chapters took more
than $700,000 from Philip Morris in 1990, according to internal corporate
documents obtained by Dr. Alan Blum, founder of the anti-tobacco group
Doctors Ought to Care. The same documents show that the Bronx Lebanon Hospital
in New York City received $25,000, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and American
Red Cross accepted $20,000 apiece, and the Medical College of Wisconsin
The American Medical Association, which does not accept tobacco-industry
money, does take funds from tobacco-company subsidiaries for public-health
The African-American groups seem reluctant to discuss tobacco contributions.
The United Negro College Fund declined numerous requests for comment.
At the National Urban League, president and chief executive 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 assist African-Americans
in the achievement of social and economic 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.
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.
To health advocates, the choice is clear.
African-American groups should actively pursue alternate funding sources
to replace tobacco money, says Dr. Reed V. Tuckson, president of Charles
R. Drew University of Medicine & Science, a predominantly black medical
school in Los Angeles.
"It is a reality of American life that institutions that are concerned
with African-Americans and other minorities are almost always institutions
that struggle for daily survival," Tuckson says. "But there can be no question
that cigarettes and tobacco-related illness accounts for a devastating
health consequence to black and other minority communities."
John Wiley Price, Dallas County commissioner and leading anti-tobacco
activist, 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."
The new black backlash against tobacco ignited in 1989 after R.J. Reynolds
Tobacco spent a reported $10 million developing Uptown, a new brand of
high-tar, high-nicotine menthol cigarette tailored to the tastes of many
When the Rev. Jesse W. Brown Jr., a black Philadelphia pastor, discovered
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
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 Association of African
Americans for Positive Imagery (NAAAPI), was formed.
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 and alcohol.
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.
The backlash ignited by Uptown culminated with the announcement of the
NMA-CDC media campaign, which 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, people can call to get 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."