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How Large Tobacco Companies Are Targeting African American Youth

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The tobacco industry has gone to extensive lengths to target and racially profile the African-American community over the past three decades. Through thorough research and heavy advertising, the industry has successfully infiltrated the population of minority African American youth. The industry’s target in the African-American community has had an extremely destructive impact, which is: African Americans suffer the greatest amount of tobacco-related death or disease of any ethnic group in the United States.

Research shows that advertising by tobacco companies and other marketing efforts greatly influence tobacco use and the beginning of smoking among African Americans, and youth of other ethnic groups. Heavy advertising is also connected with increased tobacco usage among youth who are already regular smokers. Research also shows that 80% of all smokers start before the age of 18 and, not surprisingly, the majority, smoke the three most aggressively advertised brands.  Newport–one of the largest advertised cigarette brands– is also the number one brand of cigarettes used by African American youth in the United States. Eight out of every ten African American, youth smokers smoke cigarettes produced by Newport.

For decades, tobacco companies have specifically targeted minority communities, particularly African-Americans, with intense advertising and promotional efforts. Numerous studies have documented the disproportionate amount of advertising in low-income, minority communities.


Fast Facts

  • A 2008 study of retail outlets in California found that the number of cigarette ads per store and the proportion of stores with at least one ad for a sales promotion are increasing more rapidly in neighborhoods with a higher proportion of African-Americans.
  • A 2007 study found that there were 2.6 times more tobacco advertisements per person in areas with an African American majority compared to white-majority areas.
  • African-American communities have been bombarded with cigarette advertising. Since the MSA, the average youth in the United States is annually exposed to 559 tobacco ads and every African American adult is exposed to around 892 ads.
  • A study published in the 2010 July/August issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion compared characteristics of storefront tobacco advertisements in a low-income, minority community, and a high-income, nonminority community and found that the low-income, minority community had more tobacco retailers and advertisements.
  • A study of tobacco advertising in six Boston neighborhoods found that exposure to tobacco advertising was more intense in neighborhoods with more children, especially those with significant Black and Hispanic/Latino populations, and with a low socioeconomic status.

Information obtained via the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids


There is strong evidence that tobacco companies not only advertise disproportionately in communities with large African-American populations, they also create advertising considered “appealing” to the community residents. Cigarette ads found in African-American communities and publications are often characterized by slogans, relevant and specific messages, or images that will most likely have a great appeal among the African American community, or that depict African Americans in an appealing manner. Contrasting from the stereotypes of African Americans in the media, numerous cigarette ads depict images of the “ideal” person who is shown as happy, confident, successful, attractive, strong and independent.  In addition, the tobacco industry uses symbols and large events as another strategy to target the community.

For example, in 2004, Brown & Williamson started an ad campaign for their Kool brand cigarettes clearly aimed at youth, African-American youth, in particular. The Kool Mixx campaign featured images of famous rappers and dancers on cigarette packs and in advertising which was specifically designed to attract the youth in these communities. In addition to utilizing public figures, radio giveaways were hosted with cigarette purchases in major cities around the United States. The themes of images, radio giveaways, public figures, and music all connected with the campaign, have all clearly proven to have had tremendous appeal and a major influence on youth. Coinciding with the upscale campaign, Brown & Williamson promoted and heavily advertised a new line of cigarette flavors like Caribbean Chill, Mocha Taboo, and Midnight Berry using images of African-Americans and themes attractive to African-American youth. These cigarettes were promoted through dance clubs and hip-hop music venues.

Thankfully, smoking rates among African Americans are not higher than national levels. However, African American youth still suffer highly, from smoking-caused chronic and easily preventable diseases, predominantly caused by disproportionately placed ads.  Approximately 45,000 African Americans die from a smoking-caused illness each year and an estimated 1.6 million African Americans alive today, who are now under the age of 18, will become regular smokers, and about 500,000 of these will die prematurely from a tobacco-related disease.

Thanks to corporations like MTV, all hope is not yet lost. The company is currently running a campaign to end smoking known as #finishIT. They claim that only 6% of teens smoke regularly today which is significantly lower than the 28.5% in 2001. Hopefully, my generation and future generations will fight against and finish the epidemic of smoking. #finishIT ads are often played during high profile shows such as award shows, large sports games, and some news castings.

If you or someone you know is a regular smoker, PLEASE refer to the MTV #finishIT page to find out how smoking negatively affects you and your surroundings, and tips on how YOU can quit smoking.

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Written by Sameer Ghai

Sameer is a 16 year old high school student living in Orange County, California. Sameer is passionate about photography, debate, and journalism. You can catch him binge-watching 90210, Law & Order SVU, Young and Hungry, Gossip Girl, or pretty much anything on Netflix!

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