Big Tobacco's long history of systemic racism is contributing to a public health emergency in the Black community. By design

In the United States, Black people have unequal access to healthcare resources including care itself, education, healthy food options, and even transportation to and from places where they could seek care. In 2020, the pandemic added to these disparities and as a result Black people are dying of Covid-19 at a rate twice as high compared to white people. 

With smoking a key risk factor for developing severe illness from Covid-19, Big Tobacco's history of targeting the Black community for profit can be linked to the crisis we see today. But that history is long - and with decades of evidence linking Big Tobacco’s marketing tactics to Black communities, there is a clear pattern of exploitation.

Targeted advertising of tobacco products to Black consumers began in the early 1900s, but they later took it to another level. Tobacco firm Brown and Williamson marketed the Kool brand of cigarettes specifically for Black consumers during the early 1960s. They used darker skinned models in their advertising and marketed their product more in Black communities than white communities - a marketing trend we still see today. There’s been evidence of running large amounts of ads in Black publications and even flooding select neighborhoods. For example, in Washington D.C., Big Tobacco advertises up to 10x more in Black neighborhoods than in other neighborhoods.

In addition to increasing menthol advertising in Black neighborhoods--which included handing out free cigarettes--, Big Tobacco discounted menthols at convenience stores in Black communities, attended Black music festivals and events, ran ads in Black publications like Ebony and Jet, and fostered close relationships with Black civil rights organizations. (See how Big Tobacco’s decades-long targeting of Black communities inspired one activist.)

Big Tobacco is still working hard to protect their ability to exploit Black communities. As recently as 2014, they were targeting Black members of congress with political donations, hoping to influence new laws including a ban on menthol cigarettes.