Editor's note: This piece was originally published on March 5, 2019.
When you’re in your local corner store or gas station, it may not cross your mind that companies are using tactics to push certain products to specific customers. In Milwaukee County, there's evidence that tobacco products are targeted toward low-income communities and neighborhoods of color.
If you've ever noticed anti-tobacco ads, there's probably one source whose content you've seen the most — The Truth Campaign. It started about 20 years ago to eliminate teen smoking rates. The Truth Campaign says it's "exposing big tobacco’s lies and manipulation."
And one of the campaign's commercials out of Washington D.C., a couple of years ago, drew attention to big tobacco companies’ targeting of low-income communities.
A 2016 study proves the disparity exists in areas of Milwaukee County. Lorraine Lathen, director of the Wisconsin African American Tobacco Prevention Network, participated in the study.
“We're seeing almost twice as many tobacco retailers in the African-American cluster than in the suburbs, and also with the Hispanic cluster it's about one-and-a-half as many tobacco retailers. So, we know that when you're exposed to this advertising, you're seeing these tobacco products, you're more likely to begin smoking,” she says.
The study shows the disparities in product sales, outdoor marketing, cigarette and e-cigarette marketing and pricing in several white, Latino and African-American ZIP code clusters. It finds higher levels of tobacco products are placed near candy in stores in black and Latino ZIP codes — and cigarettes are more affordable in those communities.
But smokeless tobacco products, like e-cigarettes, are more commonly available in white ZIP codes.
Lathen says products of choice in low-income communities of color have been cigarillos, Black & Mild cigars, and menthol products.
Wisconsin Department of Health Services data puts the African-American adult smoking rate at 28 percent — about twice the national rate. Lathen says that number is of concern.
“African-Americans, we tend to begin smoking later in life. We smoke fewer packages of cigarettes, but we die more frequently from the leading tobacco-related deaths, which is heart disease, stroke and cancer,” she explains.
One reason for the higher mortality rates is the greater use of menthol products in the black community, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
But why target communities of color?
Lathen says it goes back to when the markets first opened.
“If you look at Ebony Magazine, Essence — you know, all the African-American magazines back in the '60s — a lot of their advertising was from tobacco companies and liquor because other companies weren’t wanting to advertise in black magazines. So ... again, African-Americans were exposed to advertising in the '60s through magazines and journals they read,” she says.
Phillip Lee says he pays attention to tobacco advertising when he goes into stores in his community. Lee, who is black, started smoking at 16 after watching adults around him — he’s 38 now. He’s struggled with trying to quit multiple times.
“I stopped a few times before, but it seemed like since I picked it back up it’s that much more harder. I’m addicted to ‘em, that’s something I can’t deny and it’s just that much harder to get off of ‘em. I wish I never picked them back up,” he says.
Lee's not surprised tobacco companies target communities of color; however, he says it’s unacceptable.
But Wisconsin seems to have a bigger issue with curbing tobacco use in general. The state’s smoking rate is 16 percent, while the national rate is 14 percent, according to the American Lung Association.
Dona Wininsky is with the Wisconsin branch of the lung association.
“Tobacco still kills over 7,000 people in Wisconsin every single year, it's still the no. 1 cause of preventable death, and if we had those kinds of deaths numbers for anything else, we would see our legislatures calling it an epidemic,” she says.
Wininsky says it’s hard to compete with big tobacco companies when they’re spending millions on advertising. Still, she and Lathen say anti-tobacco networks are working together to try to make sure people are aware of the risks of smoking.
Support for Race & Ethnicity reporting is provided by the Dohmen Company.
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