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The Racist Roots of Big Tobacco

Big Tobacco has targeted Black communities for generations with multi-billion dollar marketing campaigns and a plethora of deadly products.

Marlboro Red cigarettes seen in a Tobacco Store. (Photo by Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Marlboro Red cigarettes seen in a Tobacco Store. (Photo by Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Trigger warning: police and anti-Black violence

Black History month—intended to be a celebration and affirmation of Black history—has often been appropriated as a PR opportunity for corporations. Last summer, amid uprisings protesting police murders of innocent Black people and record approval of the Black Lives Matter movement, the corporate scramble to appear on the “right” side of history has extended far beyond the bounds of just one month.

The tobacco industry is no exception. Despite trying to pitch itself as a partner to Black-led organizations, Big Tobacco has targeted Black communities for generations with multi-billion dollar marketing campaigns and a plethora of deadly products. Far from a partner, Big Tobacco’s claims of allyship are shallow and hypocritical.

The pennies that tobacco corporations donate are a public relations strategy meant to buy public good will—not address this legacy of exploiting Black lives and labor.

For George Floyd, buying tobacco products proved deadly. On May 25th, 2020, George Floyd purchased a pack of cigarettes with a suspected counterfeit $20 bill. Shortly after, he was arrested, and police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, killing him.

Tragically, this is not the first “arrest-to-murder” event involving tobacco products. On July 17, 2014, police stopped Eric Garner and accused him of selling untaxed cigarettes. Minutes later, Eric Garner was killed, famously marked by his final words to the police holding him down, “I can’t breathe.”

Shortly after George Floyd’s murder, Altria, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes, got right to work positioning its deadly brand. On June 5, 2020, Altria announced a donation of $5 million “to address systemic racism faced by Black Americans and advance social and economic equity.” Altria committed to a “Day of Healing” on Juneteenth, voiced support for removal of confederate statues, and pledged to support racial justice organizations.

The industry’s attempts to infiltrate Black institutions and co-opt moments of reckoning goes beyond the corporate Blackwashing of 2020. For years, Eric Garner’s death has been cited by Rev Al Sharpton and his organization, the National Action Network (NAN), as the reason to oppose tobacco regulation. Sharpton has gone so far as to warn of “the unintended consequences of banning cigarettes… giving police new reasons to lock up Black males.”

But police have never needed the rule of law to justify violence against Black people, and Black-led tobacco control groups have blasted Sharpton’s industry-influenced viewpoints. NAN has a longstanding financial relationship with RJ Reynolds, a major menthol producer. Big Tobacco ties aside, Rev. Sharpton’s claims just don’t add up: the Black community loses 1,000 lives annually to police violence and 45,000 lives from tobacco-related disease. All Black lives matter—so we need to address both systemic police violence and the tobacco epidemic.

The tobacco industry has targeted many Black-led organizations, including the NAACP, to insidiously insert itself into the Black community. These connections only further Big Tobacco’s intentions to profit off Black communities as much as possible, often employing racist stereotypes and marketing tactics to do so.

Beyond today’s marketing strategies, the tobacco industry’s intricate ties to slavery and colonizer violence runs deep. In the early 1700s, enslaved Black bodies on plantations harvested booming tobacco crops on lands violently stolen from Indigenous peoples holding knowledge of and sacred relationship with the tobacco plant. Fast forward, and see the modern portrayal of Jim Crow in marketing to the Black community. Today, Altria is headquartered in Richmond, Virginia—the former capital of the Confederacy, and the birthplace of tobacco farming in the Americas.

The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. has reignited awareness of the link to Pan-African impacts of white supremacy and its damning legacy. These impacts are present in the economic and social dynamics of major tobacco-growing countries on the African continent. Tobacco corporations perpetuate unethical working conditions that prop up the inherent neocolonialism and racism of the tobacco industry. If not for the on-the-ground activists confronting these corporations, many in the Global North would not know how deeply Big Tobacco has implemented these strategies across Africa. A long view of history reveals the racist roots of the tobacco industry from seed to cigarette.

The pennies that tobacco corporations donate are a public relations strategy meant to buy public good will—not address this legacy of exploiting Black lives and labor. First, we must address that historical truth with reconciliation, and reparations. Then, we can then begin to talk about the modern reparations tobacco corporations owe in the form of liability for the death and disease their products cause. To say the least: $5 million isn’t going to cut it.

Michél Legendre

Michél Legendre is Corporate Accountability’s Tobacco Campaign Director.

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