How The Tobacco Industry Targets Minorities

“We don’t smoke that sh*t. We just sell it. We reserve the right to smoke for the young, the poor, the black and stupid.” – R.J. Reynolds

Tobacco has a long history with the United States. Though it was first discovered around 6,000 B.C., it was not until 1492 that Christopher Columbus, who had been given some tobacco leaves as a gift from the Native Americans, introduced it to the Europeans. Instantly popularized due to the belief that it had “magical healing powers”, it wasn’t long until the dangerous health effects were first noticed. Yet despite numerous studies linking tobacco to ill health, with the 17th century being the earliest date, by 1900 a tobacco industry was established. The next year alone saw the sale of more than 3.5 million cigarettes. In 2017, that number was raised to nearly 250 billion. Today, the Tobacco Industry is worth a whopping 35 billion dollars, yet they get most of their money by continuing its trend of marketing towards, as R.J. Reynolds described it, the young, the poor, the black, and stupid. 

The truth is the tobacco industry has been targeting minorities for decades, specifically black and brown people living in impoverished neighborhoods. Smoking has become even more concentrated among populations with lower incomes, and when you look at the data this becomes much more explicit. The highest poverty rates among races are Native Americans, African Americans, and Hispanics/Latinos, while also remaining the most prevalent users of tobacco among ethnic and racial groups. Heart disease, and cancer, both smoking-related illnesses, are the top two leading causes of death among these classes. With big tobacco corporations spending billions on advertisements towards us each year, it’s inevitable that they would work.

So how exactly do these corporations target minorities? For African-Americans, this would include the placement of advertisements promoting menthol cigarettes in predominantly black neighborhoods. Their choice of promoting menthol specifically isn’t by coincidence either as it is commonly favored among other cigarette flavors in the black community, with over 90 percent of young adult African-American smokers preferring it. However, it doesn’t end here. A 2011 review about the marketing of menthol cigarettes and consumer perceptions explored health risk understandings in two studies using focus groups consisting of nine individuals. In the first, African American men and women who smoked menthol cigarettes participated in small-group discussions. The majority of the participants agreed that menthol cigarettes were primarily featured in Black publications and that most cigarette advertising and marketing in their communities were for menthol brands. Data proves that this is race-oriented as well, with Jet magazine having 83.4% of its cigarette advertisements focused on menthol cigarettes compared to 5.1% in Time magazine.

For Hispanics, their neighborhoods not only consist of more tobacco retailers than areas with predominantly white residents, but their stores sell tobacco products to underage customers as well. Tobacco companies also sponsor cultural events tied to their racial and ethnic culture, including Mexican rodeos, Cinco de Mayo festivities, and Hispanic Heritage Month. These are just a few of the many ways big tobacco markets towards us.  

Why do they continue this? If smoking is the most preventable cause of death and disease in the United States, then why hasn’t the government intervened? Because of money. In 2019 alone, the tobacco tax revenue amounted to 12.46 billion U.S. dollars. Despite having no potential benefits and only plaguing the lives of American citizens, it does not look like the government has any intentions on stopping the tobacco industry anytime soon. Tobacco companies target not only these races I mentioned, but the minority population in general, such as the LGBT community, the homeless, and the mentally ill. What we need to let our government know is that we matter. The only way we will do this effectively is by working together, regardless of race, religion, color, creed, and sexual orientation.


Duffin, Erin. “U.S. – Tobacco Tax Revenue and Forecast 2025.” Statista, 4 Mar. 2020,

Tiffin, Norman H. “Why Do We Still Permit Tobacco Use?” Canadian Journal of Respiratory Therapy : CJRT = Revue Canadienne De La Therapie Respiratoire : RCTR, Pulsus Group Inc, 2015,

CDC National Health Report Highlights CS251163. 2015.

“Tobacco Use in Racial and Ethnic Populations.” American Lung Association, 13 Mar. 2020,

“Tobacco Industry Marketing.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4 May 2018,

American Cancer Society. “Tobacco Industry Profits Estimated $35 Billion With Almost 6 Million Annual Deaths.” Maurer Foundation, 9 Sept. 2019,

“FastStats – Health of American Indian or Alaska Native Population.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3 May 2017,

“The Population of Poverty USA.” Poverty USA,

“History of Tobacco Use in America.” Swedish,

“Economic Trends in Tobacco.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 23 July 2019,

“Tobacco Is a Social Justice Issue: Racial and Ethnic Minorities.” Truth Initiative, 3 Feb. 2017,

“A Brief History of Smoking.” Cancer Council NSW, 3 June 2013,

Rising, Joshua, and Lori Alexander. “Marketing of Menthol Cigarettes and Consumer Perceptions.” Tobacco Induced Diseases, BioMed Central, 23 May 2011,

“Achieving Health Equity in Tobacco Control.” Truth Initiative, 8 Dec. 2015,

“The Tobacco Industry Deliberately Targets Minority Populations.” Tobacco Free CA, 26 Feb. 2020,

“A Brief History of Smoking.” Cancer Council NSW, 3 June 2013,

Black Commentary and Issues of Today and Tomorrow