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Eyes on the lies; how black leaders and cigarette companies have turned indoor smoking into a civil rights issue.


Scott Stapf sat before the New York CityCouncil in January and warned of an impending problem of massive racial discrimination against black New Yorkers. Legislation the council was considering, he said, "would encourage discriminatory enforcement at the expense of the city's minority communities.' The council members looked skeptical but Stapf pushed on, pointing out that the legislation would affect thousands of working blacks in New York and that "minority groups see them as a frighteningly familiar discriminatory element.'

This civil rights worker was none other thanthe assistant to the president of the Tobacco Institute, the lobbying arm of the tobacco industry. The "discriminatory' legislation he was so ardently opposing was a proposed ban on indoor smoking in New York City. How is this an issue of racial discrimination? The bill, in addition to requiring large restaurants to create nonsmoking sections, prohibits employees from smoking in most open office areas, whether in government departments or private businesses. So the tobacco lobby argues that the office provision is discriminatory because clerical-type jobs are held largely by minorities. They correctly note that white male executives can puff away in their private offices but the black clerical staff, being in the open areas covered by the smoking ban, must put out their cigarettes. Therefore, the "rights' of blacks are being disproportionately affected.

Black leaders have come to the Tobacco Institute'sside, lobbying against the city council legislation and assailing a New York State Public Health Council ruling--now being challenged in the courts--that implemented the indoor smoking ban. The Institute assembled an impressive list of local minority leaders to join the "Committee for Common Courtesy,' a coalition opposing the ban. The group included Hazel Dukes, president of the New York State branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Wilbert Tatum, the outspoken editor of The Amsterdam News, the city's leading black weekly; Nat Singleton, executive director of the Association of Minority Enterprises; Ray Hostock, president of the Caribbean-American Chamber of Commerce; Jewel Jackson McCabe, president of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women; and James Hargrove, president of the National Black Police Association.

In testimony before the Council's Health Committeein January, the Institute's lobbyists also trotted out their traditional argument that there is no concrete proof that cigarette smoking causes cancer. But knowing that this argument has regularly been ripped apart, the tobacco lobby added the civil rights issue to their pitch--and the support of the local black leaders gave great respectability to their claims. "Look where minorities fit into the work place: at the low end of the totem pole,' said Hazel Dukes, of the NAACP. "An executive can close the door and smoke as much as he or she wants. To me, that's discrimination.'

Wilbert Tatum of The Amsterdam News lashesout regularly at those in the city health department, claiming that while they attack blacks' right to smoke in public, they ignore other minority health concerns. "They are a bunch of hypocritical bastards,' says Tatum. "And when they say they are in my corner, I walk out. When government, when [New York Mayor Ed] Koch, when Reagan, and when other "good government' organizations--the AMA [American Medical Association]--start making attempts to "help' black people, I get scared.'

The civil rights argument has been criticizedby some medical professionals as remarkably shortsighted. "It doesn't make sense,' says Dr. John O. Brown, president of the National Medical Association, a group of minority physicians. His group has worked aggressively to reduce smoking among blacks. "We have banned smoking at all of our meetings and we do not accept advertisements from tobacco companies.' But in New York, the most vocal minority voices have been raised to protest the smoking ban.

Graveyard gains

The New York City smoking hearings were not,of course, the only time the tobacco industry had shown special interest in black Americans. It has aggressively targeted blacks in advertising campaigns. According to Adweek, the majority of ads in black newspapers are for cigarettes. Slick billboards with sexy, successful blacks dot the streets in black neighborhoods. Thirty-five percent of all spending for urban billboards is for tobacco ads in black neighborhoods, according to the Eight Sheet Outdoor Advertising Association. Tobacco companies have focused on blacks in part because demographically they have the characteristics of the most likely smoker: they are younger, poorer, and less educated. Not surprisingly, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, and the American Lung Association have criticized the aggressive ad campaigns targeted at blacks.

New York black leaders and tobacco industryrepresentatives, though, charge that such concern by public health groups is reprehensible. "I think it's absolutely paternalistic for someone to say that tobacco advertising and tobacco support affect blacks, hispanics, or women differently than they do white men,' says Brennan Moran, a spokesperson for the Tobacco Institute.

But whatever the reason, smoking-relateddiseases have hit blacks hardest. Forty percent of black males smoke, compared to 31 percent of white males. Roughly 39,000 blacks died last year from smoking-related diseases. "Black males smoke more and have the highest incidence and mortality from lung cancer than any other sex/race group,' notes Harold P. Freeman, director of surgery at Harlem Hospital and chairman of the Medical and Scientific Committee of the American Cancer Society.

Nationally, according to Stephen Joseph of theNew York City Health Center, an estimated 5,000 people die each year because they regularly inhale other people's cigarette smoke. There are no hard numbers on how many of them are black, but if it is true that workers in open office areas are disproportionately black, as black leaders claim, then it is also likely that the victims of involuntary smoke are also disproportionately black.

Cancer as charity

There is one other reason why, given thedisastrous health consequences of smoking, black leaders seem to have rallied to support the tobacco industry: it has spent millions in direct subsidies to the black community. Neither the Tobacco Institute nor its beneficiaries would provide specific numbers, but both testified to the industry's longtime support of the United Negro College Fund and other black cultural and educational organizations. R.J. Reynolds's Salem cigarettes division sponsors street festivals in black areas, arranging entertainment and handing out free cigarette samples. The festivals, according to Kay Young of R.J. Reynolds, were intended "to show our appreciation to the black community for supporting Salem cigarettes.' More cigarettes sponsor the Ebony fashion show, which donates proceeds to charity, and Brown and Williamson Co., which had formerly sponsored the Kool Jazz Festival, now sponsors the Kool Achiever Awards for people who have helped inner city communities.

In addition, cigarette advertising has been amajor source of support for small black newspapers, many of which cannot get major national advertisers. Tragically, the black leaders' alliance with tobacco companies seems to have been caused in part by a thirst for financial support they can find nowhere else.

While questioning the motives of public healthofficials, black leaders express great gratitude for the tobacco industry's support. "Phillip Morris has been far more conscientious in terms of social responsibility as a corporation--before the anti-smoking legislation came before us,' said Dukes, adding that she is a nonsmoker. "Why is the AMA so concerned about black health [all of a sudden]?'

Twenty-three states control smoking in governmentbuildings, restaurants, or in private buildings. Because New York's proposed smoking ban is the most comprehensive, the Tobacco Institute has been particularly aggressive, fearful the legislation might set a precedent for other jurisdictions. It has gathered 27,000 signatures against the bill and sponsored the mailing of 4,000 postcards to council members. In April, it won a New York State court case striking down the Public Health Council's ban, which was to have taken effect in May. That decision is being appealed, but the City Council is expected to push ahead on its own legislation.

Fortunately, not all minority leaders havejoined the efforts to block the smoking bans. While the Institute has been able to enlist individual black leaders, the NAACP as a group has remained officially neutral. A few leaders have even recognized that the tobacco industry is less a partner in fighting for civil rights than the cause of thousands of black deaths, and that, if anything, an indoor smoking ban would save a disproportionate number of minority lives. Victor Robles, a Hispanic member of the city council, is especially wary of the industry's manipulation of minorities in the smoking issue. "We're tired of being used,' he says. Let's hope his sense of outrage will spread.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on cigarette promotion
Author:Milligan, Susan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1987
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