Targeted marketing of cigarettes to Black people

Minnesota, Mississippi, Florida and Texas filed lawsuits in 1994 against the tobacco industry (hereafter labeled Big Tobacco) to recover smoking-related healthcare costs.  40 more states then did the same.  The defendants included many of the largest tobacco companies and organizations including Phillip Morris (which subsequently changed its name to Altria), RJ Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, Lorillard, and others.  These lawsuits ended in the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) in 1998.  The Agreement required tobacco companies to pay $369 billion in the form of yearly payments to the States; created new restrictions on the advertising and marketing of tobacco products (e.g., they can no longer advertise outdoors or to children); and required Big Tobacco to publish internal company documents in a library depository in Minnesota as well as online [(e.g., at the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library at UCSF (] [1,2].

Until the MSA, many lawsuits had failed.  Between the 1950s and 1970s, individuals filed personal injury claims, but these cases tended to be dismissed or withdrawn before reaching a trial.  Part of the reason was because litigants were unable to prove that smoking was linked to cancer, and Big Tobacco repeatedly denied that nicotine was addictive or that smoking harmed health. By the the 1980s, the health risks of smoking were widely known, even though Big Tobacco continued to deny it.  But lawsuits were still unsuccessful because Big Tobacco turned around and said that smokers knew the risks and were therefore responsible for whatever happened to them.  A key legal strategy was to focus on the release of Big Tobacco internal company documents, which showed that these companies knew about the risks and were denying them. 

The internal documents revealed previously inaccessible evidence about the ways Big Tobacco marketed cigarettes, targeted specific populations, and sought to deny the dangers of smoking.  Big Tobacco’s targeting of Black populations reveals much about how these companies perceived African Americans and the strategies they used to create and maintain Black smokers.  Tobacco marketing has of course always targeted different demographic groups, and used a variety of strategies, such as featuring celebrities (e.g., actor Douglas Fairbanks in 1928:, medical testimonials/health claims (e.g., Doctors smoke Camels, 1947: and glamour (e.g., in 1967: [3]. However, targeted marketing to African Americans means that race is the focal point of the strategy–and race is never neutral [4].  As Eduardo Bonilla-Silva argues, in a racialized social system, such as the United States, racial categories necessarily imply hierarchy, and in that hierarchy, people classified as White are at the top [4].  Access to resources, power and participation in society are allocated based on position in this hierarchy.  Housing and neighborhood access are one such resource–racial segregation and housing discrimination create spatial opportunities to target Black neighborhoods exclusively.  Thus, marketing cigarettes to Black people invokes a racial hierarchy as the basis for selling a product that harms health.  And, the harm disproportionately affects Black populations.  Black men and women are 40% more likely to develop lung cancer than White counterparts [5].  For both Black men and women, among all cancers, lung cancer has the highest rates of death [6].

To address racism in tobacco marketing, African Americans have filed lawsuits as well.  In the 1990s, Reverend Jesse Brown filed a lawsuit in Pennsylvania on behalf of Black smokers against Big Tobacco.  Unlike other lawsuits centering on product liability, this was a civil rights lawsuit, which argued that tobacco companies engaged in “intentional and racially discriminating fraudulent course of misconduct” [7]. The argument centered on the fact that Big Tobacco was aggressively marketing mentholated cigarettes (e.g., KOOL, Newport) to entice Black  people to smoke, and that this targeted marketing put Black people at risk of negative health outcomes. For example, In 1973 Brown & Williamson was spending 17% of its budget for KOOL advertising on Black people, although they were 10% of the population.  It also was saturating Black neighborhoods in standing and bus advertisements [2].  Menthol, a compound that occurs naturally in mint (and can be made synthetically) provides a cooling sensation.  Brown v. Phillip Morris argued that menthol has damaging effects in cigarettes:  1) menthol actually becomes carcinogenic (causes cancer) when smoked; 2) menthol cigarettes have higher nicotine and tar levels than cigarettes without menthol; 3) menthol makes it easier to draw deeper and longer on the cigarette, which makes them more addictive and pushes carcinogens deeper in the lungs [7]. Research has shown that smokers who use menthol cigarettes have a harder time quitting and have worse health outcomes/greater risk of cancer.  Thus, the heavy promotion of menthols in Black neighborhoods and to Black people through other media outlets meant that a more dangerous product was being advertised.  The photo below shows the leading brands advertised at a Newark gas station.

Although Newport is now perceived as a Black brand, it was not always so.  Newport was originally marketed to Whites–only after a deliberate re-positioning by Lorillard did the brand become associated with blackness.  This clip from the Prelinger Archive shows a Newport commercial from the 1960s: 
Several programs were developed to attract Black people to Newport.  For example, in 1987, the “Inner City Sales Program” was designed to obtain new smokers and maintain current smokers among Black and Latino young adults with a high school education or less.  To do so, Lorillard was to concentrate sales and marketing efforts “on high potential geographic and ethnic niches” in the Midwest and Northeast.  This included a variety of tactics including events, sweepstakes and outdoor advertising.  The “Van Program” gave out free samples of Newport cigarettes to encourage Black people to try them.  Company documents show that Black and Latino neighborhoods were targeted.  For example, for the week of July 3, 1989, vans in Brooklyn would traverse Myrtle Avenue from Flatbush to Wycoff; Fulton Street from Flatbush to Malcolm X, and Broadway from Flushing Ave to Hart Street, among other locations [8].  Boston resident Marie Evans brought a lawsuit against Lorillard for these practices, contending that the company gave her free samples in the housing project in which she lived at the age of 13, which led to a decades-long habit before she died.  The lawsuit alleges that Lorillard deliberately tried to entice Black children to become smokers by handing out free samples in urban neighborhoods [9].

Apart from specific initiatives such as those described above, advertisements at the point-of-sale (e.g., corner store windows, next to the cash register) are frequently used to gain shoppers’ attention when they are about to make a purchase. In a study in Oklahoma County, point-of-sale ads for tobacco were less likely to occur in areas with higher numbers of White residents and residents with higher incomes.  Also, store owners were often under contract with tobacco companies.  These contracts determined the number, type and placement of tobacco ads in the store.  Because store owners who were under contract received more money and other incentives that enabled more sales, they were reluctant to take the ads down [10].  An example of point-of-sale tobacco advertising in NYC appears below.  According to bodega owners, these signs are hand delivered by tobacco company representatives  every three months.

In a document entitled “Smoke Signals”, a newsletter written by C.W. Toti Director of Marketing Services and Product Development at Lorillard, a  report on “Special Black Effort”, dated July 25, 1974 described the company’s emphasis on targeting Black people:  “You’re all probably aware that the Black population generally enjoys smoking menthol cigarettes, particularly Kool…Obviously the Black smoker is very important to the menthol segment, and thus a prime target for NEWPORT marketing efforts…With the objective of capturing a bigger share of this important segment, NEWPORT is now starting a strong advertising and point-of-sale effort, specifically Black oriented."  The document goes on to describe these strategies, such as 8 sheet outdoor posting in Black neighborhoods.  An example of two side-by-side 8-sheet posters appears below.  Note that these ads are promoting liquor, another industry that frequently targets Black people. 
Finally, another strategy to increase NEWPORT sales was to feature Black smokers on transit advertising and a strong advertising effort in Ebony and Jet.  The document concludes that the package will be useful in "converting Black Power to Green Power…NEWPORT Green!”

The next three posts contain jpeg excerpts from several of these kinds of internal documents, all obtained from the Legacy Library at UCSF (University of California at San Francisco).  These documents were scanned exactly as they came from the tobacco companies.  All writing or other markings are from the original document.

Descriptions of content from just a few of these documents appears below:

PhilipMorris.1982.1002688587:  The company developed a “product sampling” program designed to “significantly increase trial and repeat purchase of Benson & Hedges brands among black and hispanic consumers–with particular emphasis on female smokers between 25 and 45 years old, living in major metropolitan areas."  The increase in "trial” means that they want to increase the numbers of people who try the cigarettes for the first time, not just people who already smoke.  Big Tobacco routinely argued that they only wanted people who already smoke to switch brands, but in fact they wanted and needed to obtain new smokers as well to maintain their business (particularly because longtime smokers may die).

PhilipMorris.1983.2043891465:  “…the black ethnic market offers a significant opportunity for Benson & Hedges.  While it is still a complex and diverse market, it is no longer as homogeneous in nature as it was during the 1960’s and 1970’s.” Also, “black Americans do not have a clearly defined national origin as do other ethnic groups such as Hispanics, Germans or Italians.  Thus, common ties to country of origin do not, strictly speaking, exist."  Although Philip Morris was apparently unaware, Black people as group were never homogeneous–White corporations simply failed to see the variability in income, education, consumer preferences, culture, and more.  Regarding culture, Philip Morris suggests that Black people have no culture or national identities. 

PhilipMorris.1993.2041010348:  The company describes community events in which it wishes to place ads, such as Black Expos in NYC and Washington, DC.  Sponsoring community events and organizations was an important strategy for Big Tobacco, to build not only brand awareness but perceptions of the company as supportive of the Black community.  Also, the year (1993) shows that Big Tobacco’s targeting of Black people is not simply a thing of the distant past. 

RJReynolds.1979.501019260:  The company seeks upper income segments of the Black community, and develops a program to target this population, stating that "KOOL does not appeal to certain segments of Black smokers because of negative attitudes toward KOOL which are a function of negative product (harsh, uncomfortable) and smoker ("ghetto brand”) perceptions.  Note that menthol cigarettes (like KOOL) included menthol in order to reduce the bitter taste and harshness of nicotine and smoke.  Young smokers are therefore more likely to smoke menthols.

RJReynolds.1981.661081684:  “KOOL’s share position in the Black submarket is large and therefore critical for the brand.  There is some evidence to suggest the brand’s vitality is suffering in this area.  It is obviously important to deal with the Black submarket such that the threat to KOOL is nullified."  This quote shows that maintaining high spending on KOOL by Black smokers was necessary to keep the brand alive, and RJ Reynolds was prepared to devote significant resources to make that happen.

RJReynolds.1986.661096850:  "Not surprisingly, KOOL’s overall image is that of a laid-back, rough, streetwise black male.  If employed, he works in a physically strenuous job…He smokes out of a need to cope with frustration rather than for satisfaction and relaxation."  This summary of perceptions of KOOL argues that the brand is connected with the "hardships of ghetto life”, and the company seems to suggest that marketing could take advantage of this hardship, promoting smoking as a means of escape from life in the ghetto.  The summary goes on to say  “…young adults may be realizing at an early age that there are limits on their ability to control their destinies.  The brand should continue this positioning, enhancing it with feelings of satisfaction and pleasure.”

RJReynolds.1989.507168676:  A company document tries to describe young Black adult smokers.  The text states, “I am twenty years old and live in Harlem.  Like many of my friends, school did not work out for me, so I dropped out…Even uptown, in my neighborhood, it is hard for me to establish who I am.  I have very limited money to show what I am about…My  clothes…my brand of cigarette or jewelry all say something about me.  My friends also like the way I rap and dance."  This text relies on and reproduces stereotypes of Black people as high school dropouts with little self-awareness or self-esteem, as poor but oriented around materialistic things (including cigarettes) to express oneself, and as rapping and dancing.  The text does not provide any insight into why certain social conditions exist, such as dropping out of school or difficulty finding work.

RJReynolds.1989.507307343:  In developing a new brand, to be named "Fat Boys”, the company notes that “In order to be as relevant as possible, the advertising should relate to the environment and the interests of the inner-city Black.  It is recommended that the advertising utilize the popularity of "Rap” music among this group to create relevant and appealing advertising.“  The company also describe outdoor advertising as a key component of the marketing.  Indeed, research has shown that Black neighborhoods have/had disproportionate densities of alcohol and tobacco ads [11-15].

RJReynolds.1990.507475465:  The company now seeks to capitalize on social movements around Afrocentricity.  Noting that Afrocentricity is an expression of positive self-esteem and racial identity, the company notes that it could be a way to communicate to Black male target audiences. 

In conclusion, Big Tobacco has used a number of ways to target Black people.  In the 1950s and 1960s, in the context of the civil rights movement, Big Tobacco positioned cigarettes as part and parcel of the upward mobility, equality, and social progress that Black people sought [7].  These strategies have continued in recent years.  Other strategies include promoting cigarette smoking as an escape from the hardships wrought by racism and disinvestment in the Black community, promoting tobacco companies as an ally of the Black community, promoting cigarette smoking through the expropriation of cultural products such as rap music, and active targeting of Black people where they live through face to face contacts and outdoor advertising.  Taken together, these strategies are based on, and reinforce racial hierarchy. 


[2] Meier, B.  Data on tobacco show a strategy aimed at Blacks.  The New York Times, February 6, 1998. 

[3] Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.  (2011).  The Way We Were:  Tobacco Ads Through the Years.  Princeton, NJ:  Author.  Available at:

[4] Bonilla-Silva, E. (1996). Rethinking racism:  Toward a structural interpretation. American Sociological Review, 62, 465-480.

[5] American Cancer Society.  (2012).  What are the key statistics about lung cancer?

[6] American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts & Figures for African Americans 2011-2012. Atlanta: American Cancer Society, 2011.

[7] Lochlann Jain, S.S.  (2003).  “Come up to the Kool taste”:  African American upward mobility and the semiotics of smoking menthols.  Public Culture, 15, 295-322.

[8]  Bates #87028751 at the UCSF Legacy Library.


[10] John, R., Cheney, M.K., & Azad, M.R.  (2009).  Point-of-sale marketing of tobacco products:  Taking advantage of the socially disadvantaged?  Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 20, 489-506.

[11] Altman, D., Schooler, C., & Basil, M. (1991). Alcohol and cigarette advertising on billboards. . Health Education Research, 6, 487-490.

[12] Hackbarth, D., Silvestri B, & Cosper W. (1995). Tobacco and alcohol billboards in 50 Chicago neighborhoods:  Market segmentation to sell dangerous products to the poor.  . Journal of Public Health Policy, 16, 213-230.

[13] Mitchell, O., & Greenberg, M. (1991). Outdoor advertising of addictive products. New Jersey Medicine, 88(5), 331-333.

[14] Moore, H., Jones-Webb, R., Toomey, T., & Lenk, K. (2009). Alcohol advertising on billboards, transit shelters, and bus benches in inner-city neighborhoods. Contemporary Drug Problems, 35(2/3), 509-532.

[15] Primack, B. A., Bost, J. E., Land, S. R., & Fine, M. J. (2007). Volume of tobacco advertising in African American markets:  Systematic review and meta-analysis. Public Health Reports, 122, 607-615.
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