Our View: Big Tobacco hits another low with response to Black Lives Matter protests

From the editorial: "Continued unscrupulous behavior from Big Tobacco really shouldn't have been seen as unexpected during a flashpoint moment like the one last summer. But tobacco manufacturers actually may have inadvertently drawn more attention to their tactics and unsavory aims."

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For decades now, Big Tobacco has been called out and criticized, justifiably so, for targeting and preying on communities of color, low-income communities, and other vulnerable populations — even children — with products they knew were addictive and also knew were deadly.

“It really has been just appalling,” Adam Kintopf of the smoking-cessation group ClearWay Minnesota said in an interview last week, held virtually, with the News Tribune Editorial Board.

As appalling as it is, Big Tobacco doesn’t seem to be letting up. It seized on a new predatory opportunity last summer during the Black Lives Matter protests. The second-largest manufacturer of large machine-made cigars and the makers of Copenhagen, Skoal, and other snuffs were among tobacco companies that put out statements pledging solidarity with the calls for social justice. They offered millions to Black-owned businesses and job-training efforts in impoverished areas.

To those who’ve long paid attention to Big Tobacco’s devious tactics, the gestures of seeming goodwill and generosity actually came off as hollow, self-serving, manipulative, and even offensive.

“It’s just so — the word I want to use is it hurts, because it’s targeting us yet again and in just the worst way possible,” LaTrisha Vetaw of Minneapolis, a statewide leader for Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation and the Menthol Commission, said in a telephone interview with the News Tribune Opinion page as a followup to the Editorial Board meeting.


“It’s deceptive,” she said. “People think, ‘Someone is nice enough to give money; they must care,’ when it’s actually the opposite of that. They’re giving money so they can make way more money.”

Pat McKone, director of the American Lung Association in Duluth, said in a separate followup telephone interview: “Any time you take money from a sponsor there is some expectation that there is a loyalty, that you won’t join a coalition against them. It buys silence, is what it does. … That’s a strategy that they use.”

And long have used.

After generations of tobacco advertising featuring traditional American Indian imagery and the association of sacred tobacco use with commercial tobacco products, is it any wonder “the smoking rates in (Indigenous) communities are the highest of any demographic group in Minnesota at about 59%, compared to 14% in the general population,” as Kintopf pointed out? “And they’re continuing to reach out to those communities,” he said.

In much the same way, decades of marketing menthol cigarettes to African-Americans in urban settings have contributed to African-American adults having the highest percentage of menthol-cigarette use compared to other racial and ethnic groups. African-Americans are also more likely to die from smoking-related diseases than white people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And, of course, the use of cartoon characters in tobacco advertising, fruit-flavored tobacco products, and brightly colored and candy-like tobacco packaging has helped lead to our current “youth-tobacco epidemic,” as ClearWay’s Laura Smith stated it to Editorial Board members.

So, continued unscrupulous behavior from Big Tobacco really shouldn't have been seen as unexpected during a flashpoint moment like the one last summer. But tobacco manufacturers actually may have inadvertently drawn more attention to their tactics and unsavory aims. Anti-tobacco activists are poised to pounce.

“The evidence shows that we’ve been targeted and preyed upon by Big Tobacco for many, many years. This is our year. I feel like this is our year more than any other,” Vetaw said. “I’m looking forward to this session (of the Minnesota Legislature) being even better because we now have lawmakers who are publicly speaking out and saying, ‘We need to make laws that support the Black community.’ … I’m excited about the times we’re living in right now because of all the support.”


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