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
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
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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."
"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
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
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."