Cancer is an Equal Opportunity Disease


This article originally appeared in Issue# 54-55

Before you finish reading this column three people will die of lung cancer associated with cigarette smoking. The chances that one or two of those people will be a person of color has increased significantly over the last decade.

The targeting of blacks in cigarette advertising became a matter of special concern in February 1990, when R.J. Reynolds Nabisco announced that the company would begin the test marketing of Uptown, a brand of cigarette specifically designed and marketed to attract African Americans.

During that same week, Dr. Harold Freeman, director of surgery at Harlem Hospital, published a report that concluded that a Harlem man's chances of living past the age of 40 were less than those of the average male resident of Bangladesh-one of the poorest countries in the world. According to Dr. Freeman's report, alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking (along with the risks of drug use and gang-related violence) were big factors in these projections.

Even more disturbing was a 1988 study by the National Center for Health Statistics comparing the 75.6 life expectancy of U.S. whites with the 69.2 average years of life that could be expected by African Americans. And this average concealed more disturbing news for black men. When the figures were analyzed by gender, African-American men's expectations of 64.9 years of life were nearly 10 years less than the 73.4 years of life their female counterparts could look forward to.

As an African American, my own experience with these risk factors didn't end with the statistics. I was tragically faced with the reality they represent in 1986 and 1989, when I lost a brother and a sister to cancer. My family is certainly not the only one to grieve, and these hard facts are resulting in a change of attitude from a decade ago.

At the beginning of the '80s, most African Americans were eager for the commercial power that came from being recognized as an important consumer group, worth targeting by corporations and advertisers. The product didn't matter.

In fact, one 1984 headline from the Black Newspaper Network, a company representing black newspapers to advertisers, proclaimed:

"Black people drink too much..."

" Too much, that is, for you to ignore the reaching power of black newspapers."

Now that the issue has been researched more thoroughly, African Americans are aware of the long-term health effects of alcohol and tobacco addiction. But I think it's still fair to say that the advertising has worked too well. Although they represent only 12 percent of the population, African Americans are America's leading consumers of both Scotch whiskey and malt liquor, accounting for 20 percent of Scotch whiskey and 32 percent of malt liquor sales in the United States.

Advertisers' relentless focus on these "good customers," visible in the advertising pages of consumer and specialty magazines and on the television screen, is beginning to create a backlash. When the Detroit Planning Commission found that 55 to 58 percent of the billboards in inner city neighborhoods were selling alcohol and tobacco, their fears were confirmed. Alberta Tinsley-Williams, county commissioner and founder of the Detroit-based Coalition Against Billboard Advertising of Alcohol and Tobacco, refers to billboards as "24-hour pushers of legal drugs." Unfortunately, we can assume that the same situation prevails in most inner-city neighborhoods.

Another issue of tremendous concern for me is the reliance of black-oriented media on alcohol and cigarette advertisers. Thumb through any black-oriented publication, from Ebony to Essence to the newly introduced news magazine Emerge, and the number of advertisements for alcohol and tobacco products is glaring. Keith Lockhart, president of Lockhart and Pettus, an African-American-owned New York City advertising agency, summarizes the problem succinctly when he states flatly: "If they kill off cigarette and alcohol advertising, black papers may as well stop printing."

Some African-American organizations are beginning to grapple with this conflict. Board members of the National Association of Black Journalists voted to decline tobacco company contributions to help subsidize its 1990 annual contribution despite the generous $20,000 they contributed to the convention budget in 1989.

Tobacco and alcohol companies also pour an extraordinary amount of money into the black community through their support of black culture. They are the chief benefactors of exhibitions, activities and other events that affect the black experience. They support them by pouring millions of dollars into the programming of such organizations as the National Urban League, the United Negro College Fund and the NAACP, to name just a few. The controversy, highlighted by R.J. Reynolds' effort to develop Uptown, has become a double-edged sword for the black community. Thanks to these divisions, community leaders are forced to choose between foregoing the corporate money that supports the African-American heritage and its legacy and the knowledge that the funds they accept were earned in part by selling death to their brothers and sisters-a kind of philanthropic genocide.

Black Americans have been fighting discrimination and bigotry, prejudice, racism and Jim Crow for decades and even centuries. It is truly ironic that with so many problems still remaining, one of the rewards we have won is the chance to purchase our own early deaths.

Cancer by any measure is an "equal opportunity disease." But advertisers, with their slick copy and fantasies of power and success, may find selling the dream a bit easier when the target is a group still struggling to make it.

Or maybe the dreamers are awakening and the dream merchants have over-reached themselves. Following outcries from the black community, R.J. Reynolds dropped its plan to introduce Uptown cigarettes. Groups were formed to scrutinize the issues of alcohol and tobacco abuse within the African-American community. In early 1990, a coalition of 22 black, Hispanic and health organizations, led by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), urged the federal government to bar brewers from targeting their malt liquor ads at black and Hispanic consumers. A recently-released CSPI video on marketing alcohol to blacks complements an earlier printed study.

Ironically, the $10 million R.J. Reynolds spent on pre-production for a cigarette it didn't release may have turned into a multi-million investment in community awareness. Hopefully, the self-diagnosis will result in the determination that African-American lives are not for sale at any price.

Author Bio: 

Marilyn Kern-Foxworth, Ph.D., is associate professor in Texas A&M University's department of journalism. She's currently writing a book on the history and portrayal of African Americans in advertising.