African Americans and Tobacco
Smoking-related disease is the number one cause of death for African Americans.1
Each year in the U.S, smoking-related illnesses are responsible for taking the lives of
approximately 45,000 African Americans, surpassing all other causes of death including
homicide, AIDS, diabetes and accidents. In New Mexico, about 7,500 African American adults
smoke cigarettes, exposing themselves and their loved ones to the known harmful health effects
of tobacco. Among racial and ethnic groups in New Mexico, death rates are highest among
Blacks and Whites, nearly double those of American Indian and Asian/Pacific Islander adults.2
There is no doubt that the overall history of African Americans is one of demonstrated strength,
resourcefulness and resiliency. However, our history with tobacco is one that has resulted in
devastating and disproportionate impact on the health and lives of African Americans.
The Development of an Industry: Tobacco and Slavery
In the early days of commercial tobacco farming, most of the
tobacco in the United States was cultivated by slaves.
Tobacco plantations utilized the largest percentage of
enslaved Africans imported into the U.S. prior to the
As early as 1619 and lasting for centuries,
generations of enslaved African Americans
labored to create wealth for tobacco plantation
owners. Slaves planted, harvested, cured and
packaged tobacco in an extremely
It’s fair to say, that the foundation for today’s
tobacco industry was built long ago on the
backs of slaves.
A History of Targeting African Americans
The tobacco industry has a long history of going to great lengths to target marginalized
populations, specifically the African American community, with aggressive marketing tactics.5
Beginning in the 1950s, the tobacco industry was one of the first commercial products to
specifically feature and market to Black Americans to build brand identity. “African Americans were
an untapped market in the 1950s and were attractive because they were earning good incomes in
post-war jobs,” said Dr. Robert G. Robinson, chair of the first chapter of the National Black
Leadership Initiative on Cancer.6
“We don’t smoke that s_ _ _. We just sell it. We reserve the right to smoke for the young, the poor, the black and stupid.” R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company Executive
When television advertising of cigarettes was banned in 1971, the tobacco industry continued and
expanded its marketing efforts, employing multiple campaigns and strategies to target and reach
African Americans. A review of tobacco industry internal documents shows these relentless
• promoting menthol cigarettes by heavily targeting African Americans through culturally tailored
advertising images and messages.
• placing larger amounts of advertising in African American publications, exposing African
Americans to more cigarette ads than Whites.
• utilizing giveaways and price promotions such as discounts and multi-pack coupons to increase
sales to African Americans and other minority groups, women, and young people.
• taking advantage of the fact that more tobacco retailers are located in areas with large racial
and ethnic minority populations, contributing to greater tobacco advertising exposure.
• increasing shelf space to menthol products in retail outlets within African American and other
• buying their way into to the Black community by supporting cultural events and making
contributions to minority higher education institutions, elected officials, civic and community
organizations, and scholarship programs.
Tactics such as these, along with flooding the market with images of beautiful, happy, famous and
successful Black people smoking cigarettes, has paid off for the tobacco companies.
Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the marketing and sale of menthol cigarettes.
A 1953 industry study showed that 5% of African American smokers preferred Kools (menthol
cigarette) versus 2% of White smokers. The industry capitalized on this slight preference and
began targeting African Americans with menthol advertising. The aggressive menthol marketing
campaign had a huge impact. From just 1968 to 1976, the percentage of African Americans
smoking Kool jumped from 14% to 38%, with even greater preference for Kool
among young African American males.
The amount of money spent for magazine advertising of mentholated cigarettes increased from
13% of total ad expenditures in 1998 to 76% in 2006. Today, an estimated 87%
of Black smokers smoke menthol cigarettes, with Newport being the preferred brand of more than
two-thirds (69.1%) of African American youth smokers.
The tobacco industry investments to target African Americans continues. To this day, there are up
to 10 times more tobacco advertisements in Black neighborhoods than in other neighborhoods. With
these concentrated, targeted and tactical marketing efforts and extensive public relations campaign,
it is no coincidence that tobacco has had a disproportionate and devastating effect on the health and
lives of African Americans.
Saving Black Lives
We are winning the battle. Uncovering the tobacco
industry’s tactics, creating awareness and
educating on the harms of tobacco are working!
Smoking among Black Americans has declined from 21.5 percent in 2005 to 14.9 percent in 2019.Smoking among Black Americans has declined from
21.5% in 2005 to 14.9% in 2019.
We know the facts. Smoking-related death and diseases are 100% preventable.
Knowledge is power. With it, individuals can make good decisions about their personal health and
wellbeing. Cities, schools and communities can enact policies to protect the health of their citizens and members. Black organizations and elected officials can align their funding with values that
promote, not harm, the health of their supporters and constituents. In saving Black lives, our future
is one free of tobacco.
To learn more on the fight against tobacco, visit the New Mexico African American Tobacco