I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. The neighborhood I grew up in, Bed-Stuy, is predominately Black — though the gentrification in recent years has been striking. Recently, I became aware of how willingly ignorant I had been to the disproportionate number of cigarette advertisements that are displayed in my community. Cigarette signage has been a fixture in my environment throughout my life. Tobacco companies have specifically targeted both African American and Latino communities with intensive merchandising and advertising to effectively drive up their sales and profits.
In doing so, it also led to more African Americans smoking and, subsequently, a number of related health problems. Research from the American Lung Association shows just how often Black communities are bombarded with cigarette advertising. Since the signing of the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) in 1998, every young person in the United States is exposed to 559 tobacco ads annually. This number grows with age and it is estimated that every woman over 18 is exposed to 617 advertisements and every African American adult sees 892 ads. Furthermore, the money that is spent on advertising mentholated cigarettes (popular with African Americans) in magazines increased from 13 percent of total advertising expenses in 1998 to 49 percent in 2005.
Being a non-smoker has also contributed to my oblivion. I didn’t make the structural and institutional connections regarding racist marketing strategies until I noticed the Racism Still Exists campaign in Bed-Stuy. While I had always viewed smoking as an individual habit requiring personal behavioral change, seeing the How to Get Black People to Smoke campaign poster made me cognizant of the larger injustices of advertising and health.
by Odia Barker, MS candidate in Nonprofit Management at The New School