Last fall my dear cousin lay dying in a Miami hospital from advanced lung cancer, the result of years of smoking menthol cigarettes. As he struggled to breathe one afternoon, he told my sisters who were visiting from California and his pastor, "If God allows me to get out of this hospital, I want to go into my community and talk to young people about smoking. If I can get just one young person not to smoke or one to quit, then my living would not be in vain." His feeble body, now just a shell of the once strong and handsome physique, was rapidly deteriorating but he was hopeful he'd conquer his cancer. Less than a week after his new life commitment, my cousin passed away. He was one of the approximately 45,000 black people who die each year from smoking-related disease, according to The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.
If my cousin, on his deathbed, felt compelled to inform black youth about the dangers of smoking, one would think that the U.S. Justice Department, led by U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler, the Tobacco-Free Action Fund and the country's four major tobacco companies would have the same revelation. It's totally inconceivable that on January 17, 2014, these entities chose to exclude the black print or broadcast media from their consent agreement that requires tobacco companies to spend more than $30 to $45 million in advertising as a result of their misrepresentation of the hazards of smoking. The $30 to $45 million will be distributed among the three major networks (ABC, NBC and CBS) as well as full-page newspaper ads and website space in white and Hispanic media. This exclusion of black media is both destructive and disrespectful to the black community; shame on the U.S. Justice Department for being party to the injustice of this odious decision.
The blatantly clear message from this decision is that these leading entities don't care about the devastating effects of tobacco use in the black community. The irony of it all is that for well over three decades the tobacco industry targeted and heavily exploited the black community to protect a declining consumer base and their profits by increasing smoking among blacks. The American Lung Association reports that from 1998 through 2005, the average youth in the U.S. was exposed to 559 tobacco ads, adult females 617 ads, and every black adult 892 ads. There were 1,477 tobacco ads in Jet, Ebony and Essence magazines. Advertisement expenditures in black communities for mentholated cigarettes increased from 13 percent of total ad expenditures in 1998 to 49 percent in 2005.
The advertising was very effective and led to a disproportionately high use of menthol cigarettes by 84 percent of black smokers over the age of 12 compared to 24 and 32 percent for Caucasians and Hispanics, respectively. According to The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, mentholated cigarettes could increase the risk of both lung and bronchial cancer more than regular cigarettes and are much more addictive. Menthol cigarettes have higher carbon monoxide concentrations than regular cigarettes with greater absorption of nicotine, which account for the increased risk of tobacco-caused disease and deaths among blacks that exceed other smoking populations.
I'm sure there will be some who feel that blacks have access to ABC, NBC and CBS, so there's no need for focused advertising in the black community. If the three major networks were so capable of reaching blacks, then why had the tobacco industry felt compelled to spend millions on cigarette advertising campaigns in the black community using the black media? The answer is quite simple. They deliberately and intentionally sought to create a strong consumer base for tobacco use in the black community and they succeeded because they engaged the black media.
It's now time to use the same targeted advertising through the black media to communicate a different message about tobacco use to the black community: "Smoking Isn't Cool, It Kills!" The tobacco companies' advertising campaign must utilize:
Local black newspapers such as The Arizona Informant, The Chicago Defender, Los Angeles Sentinel and Cleveland Ohio's Call and Post
Nationally Syndicated Black Radio Shows such as SiriusXM Urban View's Joe Madison, "The Black Eagle" and Rev. Al Sharpton's "Keepin' It Real" and "The Tom Joyner Show"
Popular black magazines and websites such as The Root, Ebony, Essence and Jet.
My cousin won't get the chance to tell his story but the U.S. Department of Justice, Kids Free Action Fund and the four major tobacco companies have the opportunity to make sure his message is heard. In his memory I ask: Please step up now and do the right thing by extending the consent agreement to include black print and web-based media to better inform the black community about the dangers of tobacco use.
Daisy Jenkins, Esq., is president of Daisy Jenkins & Associates, specializing in human resources consulting and executive and developmental coaching. She currently serves on the board of directors for Tucson Regional Economics Opportunity Inc. (TREO). She is a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.