The tobacco industry has been destroying Black lives for centuries, it's time it faced a reckoning for it

  • In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, companies and industries in general have been undergoing criticisms about racism.
  • The tobacco industry deserves its own reckoning of sorts, as it has been deliberately targeting black people in its marketing for decades.
  • Activists raising awareness for social justice should begin to focus their sights on the tobacco industry.
  • Deidre Sully is the director of Public Health Solutions' NYC Smoke-Free.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Since the start of the most recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests in late May, companies across sectors and of all sizes have faced increased public scrutiny for their treatment of Black employees, customers, and communities. Corporate giants like Walmart, Amazon, and Adidas have rightfully been forced to acknowledge and commit to repairing the harm they have both perpetuated and caused.

But what about corporations that have been killing Black people for centuries? The tobacco industry has profited off Black people in America since the early days of enslavement, yet has faced no repercussions for doing so. When will the tobacco industry face its Black Lives Matter reckoning? 

From the early years of the British colonies in America, enslaved Africans grew tobacco and enriched plantation owners. The tobacco industry exploded because enslaved people were planting, harvesting, curing, and packaging tobacco – a painstaking, extraordinarily difficult process. This work was so critical, in fact, that the profits from tobacco cultivation helped build and sustain the American plantation system.

Centuries later, Black Americans are still exploited for profit by the tobacco industry.

This exploitation is most apparent when considering the wildly disproportionate usage of menthol cigarettes among Black Americans. For decades now, the tobacco industry has aggressively marketed menthol products to Black communities.

Black neighborhoods tend to have more tobacco retailers, and a 2011 study in California found there were significantly more menthol ads at stores in neighborhoods with a higher proportion of Black residents. A young woman flipping through magazines between 1998 and 2002 would be 10 times more likely to see a menthol ad in Ebony than in People.

These are just a few of the tactics that have created massive disparities among who smokes menthols: 85% of Black smokers use menthol cigarettes, compared to 29% of white smokers. 

It is no accident that the tobacco industry chose to target Black people for menthol sales. Because menthols provide a cooling sensation, they mask the true harshness of the tobacco. It is therefore easier to start smoking and harder to quit – and leads to users taking longer, deeper inhales, allowing ingestion of more nicotine.

Higher nicotine intake causes a host of problems. Studies have shown that nicotine has an affinity for melanin; menthol leads to more nicotine in the system and therefore deeper addiction for people with higher levels of melanin. It's no surprise then that studies also show that Black menthol smokers are less likely to quit compared with smokers who don't use menthols.

These differences in quit rates and smoking habits bear out in the health outcomes, which are disproportionately worse for Black people — making Big Tobacco's deliberate targeting of Black smokers even more egregious.

Menthol cigarettes have higher carbon monoxide concentrations than regular cigarettes, which means they may increase the risk of both lung and bronchial cancer more than regular cigarettes. While on average, Black Americans smoke less than their white counterparts, the average rate of smoking-attributable deaths for Black Americans is 18% higher than the rate for white Americans.

We're seeing even more consequences of this right now during the coronavirus pandemic. Higher rates of preexisting conditions and poorer health among Black people in the US – driven by complex factors that include smoking habits and systemic racism – are also contributing to a COVID-19 death rate three times greater among Black people than White people.

The tobacco industry has been aggressively pursuing this strategy for years, and it has been largely noticed yet overlooked and unchecked by those in power. 

If the tobacco industry really cared about Black lives, they would stop their racist targeted marketing that pushes a dangerous and deadly product on Black communities. The donations from the tobacco industry in response to the most recent uprising were funded by money taken from the pockets of Black people, who received black lungs in return.

If politicians and community leaders really cared about Black lives, they would do something to limit the availability and the appeal of menthols. They would refuse to accept the millions of dollars that the tobacco industry pours into their campaign coffers – money that helps maintain the status quo. Instead, they fail to fight the industry because they are in bed with them.  

Anti-smoking activists have been loud about this issue for a long time. Now we ask all those fighting for racial justice to use their voice in opposition to the tobacco industry's long history of pushing a dangerous product on Black communities. The tobacco industry can't continue to escape responsibility for the damage they have wrought for centuries.

An experienced professional with over 15 years in the public health field, Deidre Sully has proven success in partnership building (linking both public and private entities), community outreach, and influencing policy change, as well as working with government elected officials. Deidre has a diverse range of experience in public health issues from oncology to tobacco control and reproductive health.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

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