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Racial Targeting in the Tobacco Industry

African Americans bear a disproportionate amount of tobacco-related disease due to the disingenuous interventions of the tobacco industry in their communities. This unfortunate trend poses a dangerous precedent for the increased prevalence of vaping products known to cause conditions like popcorn lung. 


The racist imposition of deadly profits cloaked in community intervention has a troubling history and does not seem to be going anywhere.


The tobacco industry is interested in Black populations because they understand their vulnerabilities as a conduit for profit. A 2002 study noted that these corporations were interested in the Black population so that they could increase the market of African-American tobacco users, use this racial contingent as a defense for their policy positions and suppress efforts to control tobacco. 


Longitudinal data has found that Black Democrats were 19 times more likely than non-Black Democrats to get donations from the company responsible for menthol Newport cigarettes, a clear favorite among Black populations. Early marketing campaigns were successful in their goal to cement menthol as the smoking option most favored among African Americans, and even now the e-cigarette company JUUL maintains menthol as one of the only flavors that evades regulation on their otherwise youth-focused varieties like mango or strawberry. 


From the early 20th century genesis of the very tools used to measure lung function to current bad-faith sponsorships of cultural events in communities of color, the tobacco industry illustrates a flagrant and disproportionate disregard for the respiratory health of Blacks in the U.S.  


It is expected that this targeted exploitation will continue and expand globally. Considering that most e-cigarettes contain larger quantities of nicotine and are therefore more addictive, there must be efforts to educate the racial groups that are subject to these tobacco corporations’ manipulative tactics. 


Beyond education, updated federal legislation must push for stricter regulation and a more detailed study of vaping products. There is strong consensus on e-cigarettes as a compounding force in the deadliness of various conditions and sicknesses (e.g., COVID-19).


Even though there needs to be regulation on tobacco companies that prey on Black communities, it is also vital to investigate means that would enable the help of good faith corporations like the Truth Initiative that have substantial capital and nuanced strategies to curb smoking in any form.


One of the many areas where structural racism persists is the tobacco industry’s seemingly charitable interventions in Black communities that smokescreen a disregard for the historical health disparities of Black populations. E-cigarettes present a concerning level of popularity among youth populations of color and pose a particularly timely danger in the age of COVID-19.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.


Jack Feenick was a Social Issues intern for ONC during the Fall 2021 semester. 


Sources:

Berry, Daina Ramey. The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation. Beacon Press, 2017.

“Lorillard Inc Profile: Recipients • OpenSecrets.” OpenSecrets, https://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/lorillard-inc/recipients?cycle=2014&id=D000019376.

“Popcorn Lung: A Dangerous Risk of Flavored E-Cigarettes.” American Lung Association, 6 July 2016, https://www.lung.org/blog/popcorn-lung-risk-ecigs.

Sadreameli, S. Christy, and Peter J. Mogayzel. “Curbing Youth E-cigarette Use Must Remain a Priority.” Pediatrics, vol. 146, no. 1, 2020. American Academy of Pediatrics, https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2020-0902.

“Tracing the racist tactics of the tobacco industry.” Truth Initiative, 16 October 2020, https://truthinitiative.org/research-resources/targeted-communities/tracing-racist-tactics-tobacco-industry.

Yerger, V. B., and R. E. Malone. “African American Leadership Groups: Smoking with the Enemy.” Tobacco Control, vol. 11, no. 4, 2002, pp. 336–45. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20208091.

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