Aggressive marketing tactics by tobacco companies have reversed the decline in smoking among African-American youth that took place in the 1970s and 80s, according to a recent study involving the School of Public Health at Georgia State University.
After analyzing tobacco industry papers from the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library at the University of California, San Francisco, researchers cited tactics such as the “menthol wars” of the late 1980s as contributing to the 71 percent increase in smoking among African-American high-schoolers between 1992 and 1998. The results of the study are published in Nicotine & Tobacco Research in the article “The African-American Youth Smoking Experience: An Overview.” Its authors are Dr. Bridgette E. Garrett of the Office on Smoking and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Dr. Phillip S. Gardiner of the University of California’s Tobacco Related Disease Research Program; Ms. LaTanisha C. Wright of Follow the Signs: Raise Awareness in Atlanta; and Dr. Terry F. Pechacek, professor of Health Management and Policy at the School of Public Health at Georgia State.
“The ‘menthol wars’ were waged in inner city communities where the major tobacco companies (ie, Lorillard, Brown and Williamson, Philip Morris, and RJ Reynolds) dispatched company vans to give away free cigarettes in high traffic areas including community parks and street corners,” the authors wrote. Other tactics included tobacco-sponsored cultural and nightclub events with free pack giveaways, packaging designs meant to appeal to black inner-city youth and one company’s release of Menthol X cigarettes during Black History Month in 1995.
The marketing counteracted protective factors, including increased cigarette prices and the influence of black churches, which led to a sharp reduction in smoking among African-American youth beginning in the mid-1970s, when smoking rates for both black and white high school seniors were about 40 percent.
However, smoking rates began to increase again at about the same time large tobacco companies launched ad campaigns specifically targeting young African Americans. Research shows the smoking prevalence among African-American youth nearly doubled from 12.6 percent in 1991 to 22.7 percent in 1997. While the smoking rate among black youth still remained lower than among white youth, the rate of increase during that time period was significantly greater for black youth.
While the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement between major U.S. cigarette manufacturers and dozens of state attorneys general banned tobacco advertising that directly or indirectly targeted youth, it did not restrict advertising at the point-of-sale (POS) on retailer property, the authors noted. “Tobacco retail advertising at the POS encourages youth to smoke, and there is more POS advertising in predominately African-American communities.”
Because African Americans suffer disproportionately from tobacco-related disease and have higher mortality rates from lung cancer, the authors concluded, “efforts to prevent smoking initiation and maintain lower cigarette smoking rates among African-American youth have the potential to significantly lower lung cancer death rates among African-American adults.”