Joe Camel Dominates More Than Billboards in Black America
SOUTH CENTRAL LOS ANGELES -- R. J. Reynolds' recent admission that it deliberately markets cigarettes to minors was no surprise to black anti-smoking activists who have waged a long campaign to get Reynolds to stop targeting young blacks. With his sun glasses, sax and hip clothes, Joe Camel has become one of the most recognizable figures on billboards in black neighborhoods.Of some 24 billboard ads in a two mile stretch of South Central LA, almost all are for cigarettes (including two for Joe Camel) and liquor. And this is only the most visible sign of a highly successful crusade by the tobacco industry to position itself at the center of black culture.The health effects of this campaign have been nothing short of staggering. Nearly half of all black adults are smokers (compared to 37 percent of white adults). Blacks die from lung cancer at a rate 40 to 50 percent higher than whites, and are more likely than whites to have heart and respiratory ailments associated with smoking.Decades ago, the tobacco industry discovered it could get more mileage out of its advertising dollar--and win good will as well--by spreading megabucks among blacks. In the 1920s, for example, cigarette companies published a guide to hotels that would accept black guests. In the 1950s, cigarette companies were pioneers in the use of African American models in ads. Since the 1960s, they have been among the corporate leaders in hiring and promoting blacks in managerial and professional posts.But advertising has been the industry's trump card. Leading black magazines, newspapers and radio stations have long crammed their pages and air time with cigarette and liquor ads. Cigarette ads -- showing chic, well-dressed, prosperous looking black couples and families, that the American dream is only a puff away -- remain a staple source of revenue.In recent years, cigarette makers have become even more adept at the image game, with "socially conscious" ads praising black leaders and celebrities, present and past, and announcing sponsorship of scholarships, business programs, and the like directed at blacks.The largesse goes beyond advertising. For the past decade, nearly every major black cultural event has had a tobacco or liquor company as its primary sponsor. The industry also cloaks itself in the mantle of a progressive advocate of civil rights and black causes. It has donated millions to groups such as the National Urban League, the Congressional Black Caucus, and given generous sums to the SCLC, the NAACP, the United Negro College Fund and the National Caucus of Black State Legislators.With tobacco products wreaking death and destruction so disproportionately among African Americans, black recipients of tobacco money draw from a storehouse of much-used rationales to defend their actions.They claim, for example, that cuts in government and corporate funding of arts and nonprofit organizations force them to seek funding wherever they can get it. They swear the companies attach no stings to their contributions. Some go even further, and hail the tobacco companies as good corporate citizens whose contributions enrich black life.These are self-serving arguments. Many black organizations have raised significant amounts -- and many black leaders have waged effective campaigns -- without a nickel of tobacco money.Black anti-smoking activists realize that in fighting the tobacco companies they are bumping heads with one of the best organized, best financed, and savvy industries on the planet. But with the health of thousands of young African Americans at stake, it is well worth the fight.