Big Tobacco is at it again!
by Carol O. McGruder
A new documentary is making its way through the major cities of the United States. The film, GhettoPhysics: Redefining the Game!, is an intriguing movie about power dynamics. Its provocative premise tells us what history has already demonstrated time and time again: No matter how often the players of “the game of life” might change, the game itself remains the same.
The film makes the case that at any given point, one is either an exploiter or an exploitee, either a player or getting played or, in the vernacular of the street, one is either “a pimp or a ho” – and occasionally one is both at the same time. And while many people might wince at the politically incorrect analogy, it certainly does get your attention. On so many different levels, this film is dead on point.
“GhettoPhysics” is interspersed with footage and words of wisdom from real life pimps and prostitutes juxtaposed against historical events and thought provoking commentary from the likes of KRS-One, Cornel West, Rev. Ishmael Tetteh, Ice-T and former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. While the movie has a much larger metaphysical message, the pimp and ho analogy is used to illuminate how corporations and governments prey upon and exploit the average Joe.
Interestingly enough, while the movie shows some of the world’s worst exploiters, it neglected to mention the most powerful, deceptive and predatory industry of them all, Big Tobacco.
Yes, Big Tobacco is the Mack Daddy of all corporate pimps; in fact, they wrote the book on Big Pimping. And thanks to the magical power of their corporate shields, they have even created a new classification, “Teflon Pimps,” because it is the one industry that no matter how often it is sued, taxed, regulated or maligned, always manages to come out on top. Big Tobacco might take a licking, but it always keeps on ticking.
Any loss that it even appears to incur is simply passed on to its millions of addicted customers, all the while continuing to use its billions in profits to work the master plan: keep selling its deadly products at all cost. Big Tobacco is a player’s playa; it knows when to come down hard and intimidating with its elite battery of highly paid executives, attorneys and scientists. And it equally knows when to quietly deflect attention by using – pimping – the front groups that they keep on call to do their bidding.
Big Tobacco is a player’s playa; it knows when to come down hard and intimidating with its elite battery of highly paid executives, attorneys and scientists.
And as “GhettoPhysics” so poignantly points out, the more things change the more they remain the same. In some instances there is never even a pretense of change. This is no better demonstrated than the recent revelation that three nationally recognized African American organizations submitted letters to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) questioning the proposed ban on the use of menthol in cigarettes.
Over 80 percent of African American adult smokers smoke mentholated cigarettes. When President Barack Obama signed the historic Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act in June 2009, he gave the FDA the authority to regulate cigarettes. One of the provisions of the act was the banning of all flavors in cigarettes – all flavors, that is, except menthol. Other flavors, like chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, were banned because it was widely “recognized” that these flavors masked the harshness and awful taste of tobacco and could encourage young people to begin smoking and subsequently become addicted to cigarettes.
And though 95 percent of young Black smokers initiate smoking with mentholated cigarettes, the health and welfare of these young people were not a priority of the legislation. Menthol’s exclusion from the list of banned flavorings prompted seven former secretaries of health, including Drs. Joseph Califano and Louis Sullivan, to write a joint letter vehemently opposing the exclusion of menthol from the banned flavors – with Califano going on to say that the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act as written relegates “Black children to the back of the [public health] bus.”
Only after a summer of agitation about menthol’s exclusion was an 11th hour amendment – initiated and co-authored by Congresswoman Donna Christensen, D-V.I., and the Congressional Black Caucus – added to the legislation that forced menthol to the top of the newly formed FDA Tobacco Product Scientific Advisory Committee’s (TPSAC) “to do list.”
This brings us to Big Pimping or Big Tobacco at its finest. TPSAC was mandated to investigate and issue a recommendation on whether menthol should be banned like the other flavors. So TPSAC has been holding public hearings and gathering “scientific” evidence in order to make its decision. It should be noted that no such hearings or “scientific” evidence were deemed necessary to ban the other flavors.
At the hearings, Big Tobacco has paraded an all-star cast of executives and scientists to provide expert testimony before the TPSAC. The official tobacco industry line is that, menthol or no menthol, people will die anyway from smoking, and since the vast majority of Blacks “prefer” menthol it would be unfair to Black smokers to ban menthol.
In a bold move that only a serious player would have the nerve to make, Big Tobacco is actually positioning the menthol question as a civil rights issue, as they infer that Black folks are grown enough to decide how they want to kill themselves and that, while government regulations might protect others, it should not interfere with the free will of Blacks! They also claim that they have no idea why most Blacks smoke menthol cigarettes. But we know why …
Marie Evans victim of Lorillard’s predatory marketing
During the 1970s and ‘80s, the tobacco industry preyed on America’s inner cities. The makers of Newports, Kools and Salems fought hard for market domination, aggressively targeting low income Blacks and more than doubling the number of African American menthol smokers.
A Boston jury recently awarded the family of Marie Evans $152 million in punitive and compensatory damages from Lorillard Tobacco Co. because in the late ‘50s, Lorillard gave out free Newport cigarettes at the Orchard Park housing project and enticed children to smoke. Marie Evans was one of those children; she began smoking at age 13 and smoked for 40 years before dying of lung cancer at 54.
In the late ‘50s, Lorillard gave out free Newport cigarettes at the Orchard Park housing project and enticed children to smoke.
The lawsuit is believed to be the first of hopefully many that will hold cigarette companies responsible for targeting Black children by giving away cigarettes in urban neighborhoods. Imagine the “burden of proof” submitted into evidence that would compel a jury in the United States of America to place the value of the life of a Black woman at $152 million.
Though Blacks start smoking later in life, and smoke fewer cigarettes per day, they have a harder time quitting. Big Tobacco wants us to believe that menthol is simply a coincidental “taste preference” for Blacks.
They want us to believe it is not a starter product for the tens of thousands of Black youth who are seduced by menthol’s smooth, soothing flavor. Big Tobacco wants us to believe its claims that menthol’s addictive chemical properties have no additional morbidity implications for the 47,000 Black folks who die every year from tobacco related diseases
While Big Tobacco can deny their predatory practices and make their own absurd legal and scientific arguments before the FDA, they still desperately need Black front groups to make the case that Black smokers are being unfairly treated when they receive equal protection under health policy laws. This relationship between the tobacco industry and Black leadership groups was documented in a 2004 research paper entitled Smoking with The Enemy: Black leadership groups and the tobacco industry (Yerger & Malone, 2004).
The article, written by two researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, used previously secret but now publicly available internal tobacco industry documents released during litigation to document how the tobacco industry gave money to and systematically cultivated relationships with almost every major African American organization. These relationships were cultivated for three purposes: 1) to increase tobacco use among African Americans by creating and maintaining positive images of tobacco and tobacco companies, 2) to use African Americans to defend tobacco industry policy positions and 3) to defuse public health efforts from within African American communities.
Over the years, many African American organizations have unwittingly become “hos” for Big Tobacco, not seeming to fully grasp that their good names give the tobacco industry respectability and help maintain the deadly silence that is killing Black people. However, there are others who knowingly take the money and run.
Over the years, many African American organizations have unwittingly become “hos” for Big Tobacco.
Getting back to “GhettoPhysics,” these organizations actually pimp and ho at the same time. They ho by running interference for Big Tobacco, by putting a Black face on the same old tobacco industry rhetoric, and they simultaneously pimp their own people by providing Big Tobacco entrée to their communities, offering up their young and old alike to the wolves in wolves’ clothing – no pretense of a sheep here.
The three groups who surfaced this time are the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the National Black Chamber of Commerce (NBCC) and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE). These groups urged the TPSAC to consider the negative implications of a ban – Blacks might stop smoking – and to discount any scientifically unsubstantiated evidence on menthol. In the past all three of these groups have benefited from Big Tobacco’s largesse and in fairness it must be said that at one point in time the tobacco and alcohol industries were the only corporations interested in giving money to the Black community.
But it is a new millennium and that largesse hasn’t been the case for decades. Frankly, we don’t know what has transpired in recent years between Big Tobacco and these groups. But it is certainly interesting to note that with record unemployment, foreclosures, the widening academic achievement gap, health inequities and the huge across-the-board economic setback of Black America, these Black leadership groups would find it important to devote their precious time, energy and limited resources to ensuring that Black folks are not kept from their deadly menthol cigarettes. What a sad day.
Especially in light of the just released U.S. Surgeon General’s report on smoking, Dr. Regina M. Benjamin, who lost her own mother to lung cancer, is on the case. CORE, NBCC and NOBLE might want to speak with her.
Her report states that there is no safe level for smoking, that damage to smokers and non-smokers alike is immediate, that cigarettes are designed for addiction and that people need to stop smoking any way they can. Taking out the menthol would be a great start; the poison wouldn’t go down quite so easy.
African American tobacco control experts want Black leadership groups to stand up for prevention programs for Black youth and effective cessation services for the millions of overburdened, stressed out Black folks who desperately want to stop smoking; to get the tobacco industry out of Black communities; to make elected officials and health departments take these issues seriously and provide adequate resources and attention to deal with them; and to stand up so Blacks will no longer be a footnote and a bargaining chip in negotiations on the health policy needs of white America.
The tobacco industry and their front groups are quick to point out that cigarettes are a legal product for adult consumers. And that is true, but it is equally true that in 2006, Judge Gladys Kessler of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia found Philip Morris (Altria), R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co., British American Tobacco Ltd., Lorillard Tobacco Co. and Counsel for Tobacco Research-U.S.A. guilty of federal racketeering under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).
The only difference between these tobacco companies and the Mafia is that Big Tobacco is incorporated and they use the magic of marketing and the power of addiction to get their victims to voluntarily kill themselves. In her 1,653 page ruling, Judge Kessler wrote that the “defendants have marketed and sold their lethal products with zeal, with deception, with a single-minded focus on their financial success, and without regard for the human tragedy or social costs that success exacted.” She stated further, “The evidence clearly establishes that the Defendants have not ceased engaging in unlawful activity.” Big Tobacco sought to appeal her decision, but it was upheld in 2009.
It is unacceptable for African American organizations to represent the interests of or take money from the industry responsible for 47,000 Black deaths a year. Forty-seven thousand Black deaths is equal to the deaths of 9/11 occurring every month of the year, plus one every week during Black History month. Forty-seven thousand Black deaths a year is more than the deaths from all of the other preventable causes of death – AIDS, homicides and accidents – combined.
It is unacceptable for African American organizations to represent the interests of or take money from the industry responsible for 47,000 Black deaths a year.
Crack cocaine has ravaged our families and our communities; we have a visceral reaction when we even hear the word “crack.” It is violent, it is immediate, it is in your face.
We must learn to feel the same way about Kools, Newports and Salem cigarettes because they are responsible for the 47,000 Black people who quietly disappear every year. More importantly, we must feel that way about the industry that makes it happen.
Big Tobacco knows that their business is simply a numbers game. The more young people who can be enticed and addicted, the more customers for them. The more they can delay, stall and confuse the public health process – in banning menthol, restricting predatory targeting or increasing cigarette taxes – the more time they have to addict another generation. Black leadership groups have no business helping them.
By the way, you can check out the film at http://www.ghettophysics.com. Evolution is the revolution!
Breaking newsflash: The Lorillard and R.J. Reynolds tobacco companies are suing the U.S. government to block the TPSAC from even reviewing the evidence and making a non-binding report to the Food and Drug Administration about menthol cigarettes.
Carol O. McGruder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.