Isiah Holmes

How Tobacco Companies Target Minorities

UWM study shows stores in black and Latino neighborhoods target children.

By , Wisconsin Examiner - Oct 8th, 2018 02:17 pm


If you live in predominantly African American or Latinx neighborhoods in Milwaukee, your children are far more likely to be targeted by tobacco companies trying to turn them into smokers.

A recent study by researchers at UW-Milwaukee’s Zilber School of Public Health, for instance, found that stores in predominantly African-American and Hispanic ZIP codes are more likely to engage in tactics like placing tobacco next to candy, placing ads in the line of sight of children and offering price promotions on items like small cigars selling for less than $1, said Linnea Laestadius, an assistant professor in the School of Public Health.

“The evidence is increasingly clear that children who are exposed to tobacco marketing in stores are more likely to start smoking,” she added.

Store audits were conducted by public health workers and volunteers at 195 tobacco retailers during three months of 2016. The study is the first to document the trend in Milwaukee, said Laestadius.

“Some of this is due to the type of stores,” she noted. Corner stores, gas stations, and pharmacies that densely occupy low income areas often sell tobacco products in this manner.

Anneke Mohr, coordinator of the Milwaukee Tobacco-Free Alliance, points to the city’s poorest ZIP code, 53206, to illustrate the dramatic difference in how minorities are targeted. She notes that 53206, with 28,840 people, has 65 tobacco retailers whereas the larger ZIP code 53211 (on the East Side) has just 27.

“There also seems to be different pharmacies and grocery stores by neighborhood,” says Mohr. Pharmacies such as Walgreens populate Milwaukee’s African American and Latinx communities, whereas mostly white areas have CVS stores. Mohr notes the fact that CVS stopped selling tobacco products in 2014.

“If someone could change the store composition or cap the number of tobacco licenses issued, that would help address the issue,” Laestadius suggests.

Mohr points to action by Alderwoman Milele Coggs and residents of District 6, who organized against a proposed Dollar Tree in 2017. Their goal was to instead establish a full-service grocery store which wouldn’t sell tobacco products, unlike Dollar Tree. They succeeded in getting a Pete’s Fruit Market located there instead. “It’s heartening to see residents and local leaders take a stand on the types of businesses and products they want to see in their community,” says Mohr.

One issue may be the fact that so few of these stores are owned or managed by minority business people, who might be more sensitive to the issue.  While there are locally-owned small businesses on the rise in some of Milwaukee’s African American communities, like the Rise and Grind, Sherman Perk, and other businesses treasured by locals, they remain exceptions.

The problem isn’t something unique to Milwaukee. Minorities across the nation, particularly African and Hispanic Americans, are targeted with aggressive marketing campaigns by tobacco companies.

“Stores are often paid incentives by tobacco companies to place ads in their stores”, says Mohr. “The retail environment in low income and predominately African American communities has been a focal point for tobacco marketers since the 1970’s.”

Laestaduius cites historical examples of sophisticated operations targeting specific minority demographics. Like Project SCUM in 1995, a brainchild of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company proposed for San Francisco. SCUM, standing for Sub-Culture Urban Marketing, hoped to target city areas with high populations of homeless and LGBTQ people. Later renamed Project Sourdough perhaps due to the offensive nature of the earlier name, it was discovered during litigation against the company. Although never launched, Project SCUM shined a light on internal company views of targeted communities and their hopes of securing a youthful population of lifetime smokers.

In Wisconsin, African-American adults and lower income adults have particularly high smoking rates, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Promotion of menthol cigarettes, which have higher carbon monoxide concentrations than regular cigarettes, has been a key part of marketing to black consumers. Information revealed in the suit against R.J Reynolds showed the company knew that menthol cigarettes, just 29 percent of the overall market, were favored by over 70 percent of black smokers. The company built on that, believing a product portrayed it as “classy” and associated with “the good life” and high status would draw black smokers.

The tobacco industry spends over $8 billion annually on advertising and promoting a product known to cause illness and death.

“The more general marketing/consumerism literature would defiantly argue that marketing itself can be harmful to our identities,” Laestadius said. She cited a University of Virginia paper examining the spiritual consequences of consumerism, written by Stephanie Kaza in 2000. Kaza describes the exploitation and perpetuation of “idealized stereotypes” by marketing firms for profit. “Advertising deliberately fosters a climate of self-involvement, playing on people’s needs for security, acceptance, and happiness,” the study notes.

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Categories: Health

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