Weaponized Oppression: Big Tobacco’s Attempt To Exploit Civil Rights Messaging
The tobacco industry will do whatever it can to make a sale, including blatant exploitation of the civil rights movement. Reverend Horace Sheffield, a well-known Black civil rights campaigner and pastor in Detroit, was recently offered hundreds of thousands of dollars to campaign in support of menthol cigarettes. Why? Because the tobacco industry is threatened by a proposed ban on menthol cigarettes.
The FDA’s Latest Anti-Menthol Proposal
In 2022, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a new proposal to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars. The proposed rules would help prevent minors from becoming the next generation of smokers — since studies show that most underage smokers start with flavored products.
For decades, Big Tobacco has targeted African Americans with menthol cigarettes. Smoking rates in African American communities remain much higher than that of the general population, and quitting rates are also lower. Predominantly Black neighborhoods receive 2.6 to 10 times as many cigarette ads per person as other neighborhoods, with the majority of them advertising menthol products. As of 2020, 90% of all African American smokers reported smoking menthols, and more than 39,000 African Americans die from tobacco use each year.
Our voices should not be for sale. Our organizations ought not be bought.” – Rev. Horace Sheffield
Here’s where Rev. Horace Sheffield comes in. As part of a recent lobbying campaign against the proposed menthol ban, tobacco companies are attempting to line the pockets of well-known Black activists for speaking out against the ban. Tobacco companies claim that the ban on menthol cigarettes will:
- Criminalize Black smokers: However, the truth is that smokers will not face any criminal repercussions; the ban will only prevent retailers from selling menthol and flavored cigarettes.
- Lead to a loss of identity: Many tobacco companies claim that menthol cigarettes are an important part of Black culture, and that the ban will infringe on their cultural identity. However, menthol cigarettes are only ingrained in Black culture because tobacco companies have marketed them to do just that.
While it is unknown how much money tobacco companies are offering to persuade Black leaders generally speaking, we do know that RJ Reynolds offered Rev. Sheffield up to $250,000. Many Black-led organizations operate on a donation-only basis, and most are in dire need of funds, which makes RJ Reynolds’ offer even more appealing — and sinister. Yet Rev. Sheffield says he was never tempted to accept the offer and continually denied it.
The fine print of the FDA’s proposed menthol standard will:
- Reduce the appeal of cigarettes, particularly to youth and young adults, decreasing the likelihood that nonusers will experiment with menthol cigarettes and then progress to regular smoking.
- Improve the health and reduce the mortality risk of current menthol cigarette smokers by decreasing their cigarette consumption and increasing their likelihood of cessation.
Again, those possessing menthol cigarettes will not be criminalized — only retailers will. This refutes the claims tobacco companies are making in their attempts to pay off Black influencers and activists. If passed, the new standards could save an estimated 600,000 lives, 250,000 of which are Black, proving that these efforts will not cause harm, but prevent it.
This story of oppression and bribery is one of many that arise due to Big Tobacco’s twisted marketing schemes. For more information on how to fight back, visit our get involved page.