Same Game, Different Smokers: Tobacco Targets Blacks
By Dianne Anderson
Smart smiling smokers plastered across billboards and television ads in those extra cool vintage days of old have now given way to a new generation of young, hip and specifically Black people going up in smoke.
The “Same Game, Different Smokers” exhibit opened July 7 at the Muzeo Museum and Cultural Center, featuring the journey of exploitation by the tobacco industry that costs over 47,000 Black lives every year.
The exhibit runs through August 24, located at 241 S. Anaheim Blvd in Anaheim.
Carol Latham, the local project curator, said the exhibit spans over 30 large panels to fill the gallery with lots of room to sit in between and contemplate what happened.
“The health factors, the difficulty that one has in giving it up, there are so many factors mentioned in this exhibit. It’s very provocative informative and educational,” said Latham, community outreach coordinator at Muzeo Museum and Cultural Center.
She said that one disturbing aspect is seeing the extent of the massive impact of social marketing, both then and now.
“Areas that are exciting, creative and beautiful, like jazz concerts, but their sponsors are companies working against the community that are providing the music,” she said. “They’re using fragrances and candy to mask the tobacco, and vaping.”
Carol McGruder, co-chairperson and a founding member of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, said the exhibit was first conceptualized by Tracy Brown, a curator and artivist with AATCLC. There is also a curriculum to help teachers present to the students.
“It is very powerful and we’re looking to take it to Los Angeles, and expand it to major cities, but we’re so grateful in Anaheim. Part of what we’re going to do is to really educate people,” she said.
With a background in HIV/AIDS and Black Infant Mortality, McGruder first ventured into anti-tobacco activism after her aunt died from lung cancer at 58 years old. Back then, there were few Black anti-tobacco advocates.
“We’re like the underdogs of our cause even though it kills more than everything else combined. It’s been a long slosh,” she said.
She said tobacco control is about community norm change, but she sees potential for a bigger push with Black leadership to reduce smoking prevalence in the community. First, the supply side of the problem needs to be tackled.
Her organization backs legislation to get the killer products off the market. They are also seeking culturally tailored, culturally competent services to address the social-political side of access to healthcare.
Her other statewide project, Amplify Love, wants to improve cessation, and get smoking reclassified as a chronic relapsing disease, like diabetes. She said people with chronic conditions need access to medications and methods to get well.
“You don’t give people one shot at something and if they’re not successful then say — too bad,” she said.
Quitting smoking is an ongoing process for most people. Some try the nicotine patch or medication, but the community must have the best medical standard and their choice of care. The healthcare is already paid for by the people who buy cigarettes. The tobacco tax is built into each pack.
Also in the works, Proposition 31 is headed for the November ballot. California already passed a statewide law to take menthol-flavored tobacco off the market, but that law was put on hold as the tobacco industry collected signatures to have a referendum put on the ballot.
McGruder said the industry is trying to thwart her organization’s efforts since she started hitting the Senate and the legislation passed.
“They say that taking menthol off the market is going to hurt Black people because that’s our preference,” she said, adding, “the reason why Black people prefer menthol is because of the tobacco industry’s pernicious targeting of our people.”
For that reason, 85% of Black smokers smoke mentholated products. According to the Truth Initiative, only 29% of whites smoked menthol. Overall, whites smoke more, but more Black people die from lung cancer.
Part of it is because menthol allows deadly toxins to seep deeper into the lungs, she said, “It’s both soothing and killing, and has its own addictive properties, along with the nicotine.”
Not helping matters is how tobacco industry lobbyists and companies try to stop the message. She said the industry has killed one million Black people in the past 20 years, and continues at 45,000 per year.
One African American faith-based organization was offered $150,000 to come out against her effort, she said.
“They’re really upping the ante right now [fearing] if we are successful. The FDA is in the process of taking menthol off, and the little cigarillos, which is important for our Black and Brown boys and adolescents,” she said.
Ernesta Wright, who has been working with anti-tobacco efforts for nearly three decades, helped coordinate the Muzeo exhibit along with several other local organizations and Black leadership.
She said the event shows the extent of predatory marketing in the Black community, and how the industry knew that the chemicals were highly addictive.
“It’s about tobacco education as well as how harmful the substances, and that it was definitely targeting Black people to become addicted [with] the addictive chemicals,” said Wright, Executive Director of The G.R.E.E.N. Foundation.
She said the exhibit will cover all the historical points, and it’s very dynamic.
“It’s a good collaboration with Muzeo to bring this Black and African American exhibit to the county of Orange. It’s a plus plus plus for everybody,” she said.
For more information, see https://www.savingblacklives.org
Muzeo Museum and Cultural Center https://muzeo.org
The GREEN Foundation www.thegreenfoundation.net