if tobacco companies didn't have enough troubles . . .
Now comes a North Philly preacher who has sued them for being
racistby pushing tasty but allegedly more lethal
menthol cigarettes on the African-American community.
Sabrina Rubin, Senior Writer
and sisters. Today Id like to tell a story about a North
Philadelphia preacher. This preacher was no rich man; no,
sir. He lived in a sagging little house where the rugs were
worn thin and the plaster walls were cracking. This preacher
had a church nearby, a stone church with proud, tall stained-glass
windows. Thieves used to smash those windows to steal the
this preacher used to see schoolchildren pass by the church
each day. Theyd walk past the abandoned houses, past
the bodegas with their checkout counters behind bulletproof
glass. Theyd walk underneath the billboards, those colossal
billboards that blocked out the sky. The billboards that cast
SHADOWS onto the concrete below. Those billboards were the
ONLY splashes of COLOR in that broken-down neighborhood, and
the children couldnt HELP but look at them. And what
would the children see? Theyd see beautiful black models.
Models who always seemed to be hugging, or laughing, or building
snowmen. Models who were SMOKING CIGARETTES Newports,
Salems, Kools menthol brands that are so popular in
the African-American community! You KNOW what Im talking
Lord, Lord, Lord.
you know what this preacher did? This preacher fought back.
this preacher didnt have money. He didnt have
congressmen in his pocket. But he was BLESSED with the support
of his community, and he was BLESSED with a gift for words.
And with those as his only weapons, the preacher fought hard.
And lo and BEHOLD, he had victories. When new cigarette brands
came out that were especially targeted at African-Americans
brands with names like Uptown and X the preacher
FOUGHT them into extinction. And the preacher was satisfied,
to a point. But in the back of his mind, he knew the tobacco
industry considered him small potatoes. To the powerful industry,
the preacher was nothing but a little North Philly clergyman.
then one day, the preacher discovered something. He discovered
some medical research that had been done a long time before.
And for once, the preacher was left speechless.
pages talked about research on MENTHOL CIGARETTES CIGARETTES
the INDUSTRY would AGGRESSIVELY MARKET TO AFRICAN-AMERICANS
for the next 50 years, right up until this VERY DAY. And this
that menthol cigarettes may
be MORE cancer-causing, more DEADLY, than regular cigarettes!
But thats not all. The preacher found something else,
too: He found DOCUMENTS that the tobacco industry had been
FORCED to give up in a Minnesota lawsuit. And what he read
there made him certain that the industry had known about the
menthol research all along.
when the preacher REALLY got mad. And the preacher filed a
fearsome class-action lawsuit, the first of its kind. Because
this lawsuit wasnt based on personal injury law or on
product liability law. This lawsuit was unique because it
was based on CIVIL RIGHTS law.
suddenly, the tobacco industry was taking that little North
Philly preacher very seriously indeed.
This is the way Reverend Jesse
Brown speaks: He tells you
what hes going to say. He says what hes going
to say. He reminds you of what he said. Then hes done.
I go into a campaign, I go in it to WIN," he avers from
the passenger seat as we pull out of the parking lot of his
former church. "I dont go in it to lose. Other
people might not be so sure. But when I start something, AAHHM
SURE were gonna win."
speaks with a rolling cadence, a hypnotic flow that both stirs
and soothes, his North Carolina drawl dripping from his tongue.
Browns masterful oratory is why this past year, while
on sabbatical, the Lutheran pastor had a three-month wait-list
to guest-preach in Philadelphia churches. Its also why
hes so successful at anti-tobacco advocacy, since its
a rare being who isnt swayed by Jesse
NEED this lawsuit," he continues, the blight of North
Philadelphia slipping by: cracked sidewalks, faded brick buildings,
convenience stores with windows all but obscured by cigarette
ads. We are traveling to a nearby auto repair shop, where
Brown is having wife Sandys station wagon window replaced,
again, after the car was broken into last night as it sat
in front of their home near 16th and Erie with Sandys
now dearly departed communion set shes a Lutheran
pastor as well inside. Brown looms large, with a patchy
beard and silver-framed glasses that keep sliding askew. He
is in his clerical collar, having just finished performing
a funeral for a parishioner.
tobacco-related issues that people of color have, have not
been taken seriously," Brown continues. "They arent
covered by traditional anti-tobacco organizations. The black
community has to take up its own causes, cause nobodys
gonna do it for us. With that in mind, we filed this lawsuit."
Brown grins, revealing a long, twisty front tooth. "Its
like Brown v. Board of Education," he adds gleefully,
"Only now its Brown v. the tobacco companies!"
he may be overstating the point, the 43-year-old ministers
ideology has gotten people talking: In October, when his class-action
lawsuit against 12 major tobacco companies was filed in federal
court, it made him front-page news, as much for the menthol-cigarette
research he cited as for the unusual nature of the case.
Browns attorney, William Adams, "The industry never
told blacks, the targets of their advertising campaign, that
menthol cigarettes were actually more harmful than regular
cigarettes. That is in violation of their civil rights. We
arent saying the tobacco industry put out this product
with the intention of killing blacks," Adams clarifies.
"Im sure the tobacco companies would prefer not
to kill off their customers its bad for business.
But its an unfortunate side effect one they had
knowledge of. And one which we must hold them accountable
tobacco industry defendants including heavy hitters
Philip Morris, RJR Nabisco, Brown & Williamson, and Lorillard
refuse to comment on whether menthol makes cigarettes
more dangerous or whether they marketed them to blacks knowing
this was the case. Regarding the discrimination charges, they
could, of course, maintain that targeting potential customers
based on gender, age, race or ethnicity isnt a civil
rights violation at all, but simply good marketing strategy,
the same niche-marketing utilized by companies from Nike to
McDonalds. They could although for now, theyre
taking an even more unyielding tack.
has been no discrimination against African-Americans,"
says Jeffrey Weil, counsel for Philip Morris. "They buy
the same cigarettes, with the same warnings, as do white Americans.
They, like white Americans, are free to buy menthol cigarettes,
non-menthol cigarettes, or no cigarettes." Furthermore,
the industry points out that a fundamental part of the relief
Brown seeks, that the industry stop advertising menthol cigarettes
to blacks, seems itself an example of discrimination.
the industrys position, it is hard to deny it has heavily
marketed menthol cigarettes to blacks a trend the Surgeon
Generals office noted in its grim first-ever report
on tobacco and minorities, released last April. Menthol, the
same substance in cough drops, gives cigarettes a cool, minty
taste and is preferred by 75 percent of African-American male
smokers. Ads for menthol cigarettes have long featured models
and slogans meant to appeal to blacks like Salem Extras
"Different smokes for different folks" and
tend to run on inner-city billboards and in African-American
the Surgeon Generals Report points out, African-American
smokers have significantly higher cancer rates than any other
group in the United States, even though they smoke fewer cigarettes
per day than their white counterparts. The tobacco industry
contends that those unequal cancer rates could reflect other
lifestyle factors, genetics, or toxic environmental agents
in inner cities. Brown and his lawyers say this last is true
and the agent is menthol.
lawsuit couldnt come at a worse time for the industry,
which in just the past three years has had to yank Joe Camel;
suffered public allegations that it targeted children and
spiked its products to make them more addictive; paid a $38
billion settlement to four states; and offered to pay $206
billion to the other 46 and forsake many of its advertising
outlets. Getting hit with another potentially huge payday
and allegations that its practices are devious and racist
could be devastating. Some tobacco activists hope it might
force back to Congress the issue of whether tobacco should
be regulated by the FDA.
lawsuit is the beginning of a new public awareness that could
lead to a paradigm shift," says Melanie Horvath, of the
American Cancer Society. "It wont bring instant
change, but youve got to start somewhere. Think about
car seats. In the past, there were no car seat laws, but a
few people raised their voices, and eventually there were.
The same thing could happen with menthol."
it does, the Reverend Jesse
Brown knows KNOWS
it can only be because it was Gods will all along. "I
think we are here on this earth to be change agents,"
he says as we pull up to the auto repair shop. "Whether
your calling is to serve the Lord or to serve your fellow
man, when you get the call, you have no choice but to heed
it." Brown swings open the door; his station wagon, with
new, sparkling windows, is waiting on the lot. "Let God
Browns activism began in late 1989 with a little gold-and-black
package bearing the name "Uptown" and containing
menthol cigarettes made by the worlds second-largest
tobacco company, R.J. Reynolds. Reynolds had a specific audience
in mind. Uptowns ads, planned for bus shelters, billboards
and African-American publications, were to feature black couples
in sophisticated urban environments. The campaign was planned
for Black History Month, when Uptown would underwrite the
cost of and distribute free samples at events
celebrating the African-American experience. The cigarettes
were being packaged filter-down, since blue-collar African-Americans
sometimes open their packs from the bottom, so as not to touch
the filters with unwashed hands after work. And in case anyone
missed the point, R.J. Reynolds declared, "We expect
Uptown to appeal most strongly to black smokers." It
also announced that Uptown would be test-marketed in Philadelphia
which, because of the concentrated black community
of North Philly, would serve as an ideal site.
smack in the middle of that test site was the Reverend Jesse
Brown. He and Sandy had moved in two years earlier, newly
ordained, arriving straight from seminary with their four
children. Neither Jesse nor Sandy, who is white, had ever
been to Philadelphia, and they were somewhat surprised to
find their new neighborhood, including their churches, mired
in poverty. But the Browns accepted their assignments without
complaint. After all, Jesse, raised in the projects in Greensboro,
North Carolina, was no stranger to troubled communities. And
he was certainly accustomed to hard work: A few years earlier,
after he and Sandy graduated from college, theyd struggled
to feed their growing family while saving up for seminary,
with Sandy toiling as an office temp and Jesse working at
Arbys. This was no worse, he reasoned. So Jesse
got right to work trying to mend both his church and his new
hearing of Uptowns marketing campaign, he was aghast.
Although a nonsmoker, he had already lost parishioners to
cancer. He also remembered how his laborer father, hands caked
with wet cement, would have Jesse put his cigarettes to his
lips for him, so as not to dirty the filters right
in line with Uptowns packaging. All in all, Uptowns
strategy hit too close to home. Brown called a community meeting
and outlined a plan of protest coordinated with the American
Cancer Society. He was organized and media-savvy, enlisting
local health, civic and social organizations. The "Uptown
Coalition" sewed the community up so tight that Philadelphia
became impregnable just 13 days after announcing Uptowns
debut, R.J. Reynolds quietly withdrew its test-marketing plan,
then soon abandoned Uptown altogether.
in 13 days we defeated the industry," Brown recalls.
"Thirteen days. No one expected such a resounding victory.
It was like David and Goliath."
long, he became aware of another irksome product: Hang Time,
a chewing gum packaged to look like chewing tobacco, sporting
a picture of Michael Jordan. Brown called a press conference
at his church at 30th and Diamond. "This desensitizes
black children to chewing tobacco!" he thundered. Two
years later, Brown repeated his success with a new malt liquor
called PowerMaster. Hed found his niche.
his anti-tobacco advocacy was putting him in the national
spotlight, Brown was becoming a household name in North Philly
for his community activism. The Black Clergy of Philadelphia
and Vicinity, an assembly of the citys 400 most influential
African-American church leaders, took note of the quirky,
hardworking pastor and jumped at the chance to bring more
denominational diversity to its Baptist-dominated ranks, naming
him its new president. (Brown was born to a Baptist family,
but there were no Baptist churches within walking distance
of the Greensboro projects, which is how the nearby Lutheran
church became the only black Lutheran church in Greensboro,
and Brown one of only 300 black Lutheran ministers in the
position put Brown in the limelight virtually any time black
issues were discussed in the city. When the Black Clergy chose
not to endorse either Chaka Fattah or Lucien Blackwell for
U.S. representative, Brown made headlines by announcing that
he supported Fattah, even after the Tribune and Sun endorsed
Blackwell. And when the Clergy decided to stand behind then-representative
Tom Foglietta over African-American candidate Harvey Clark,
Clark sent Brown a furious letter, accusing him of having
shunned a fellow black man.
felt like a celebrity. He met Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton.
When he once mused aloud that he might run for office someday,
the Tribune ran a gossip item excitedly announcing that Brown
was challenging John Street for City Council.
his main passions were his church and anti-tobacco activism.
When Brown painted over a North Philadelphia tobacco billboard
in protest, a hundred supporters cheered him on as he was
arrested. When, in 1997, Camel debuted a menthol cigarette,
Brown organized drugstore sit-ins in Philadelphia, Chicago
and Detroit, until Walgreens pulled the product.
January 1998, Brown decided to leave his post at Christ Church
and spend even more time on activism. His congregation reluctantly
bid him good-bye; in his 10 years as pastor, Brown had helped
build its membership, put a first-rate choir into place, and
worked to renovate the building. Browns bishop warned
him he wouldnt remain churchless for long; he had earned
himself a reputation as a miracle-worker.
now had a chance to sift through the reams of documents from
the state class-action lawsuits of the past couple of years,
as well as half a century of menthol research in scientific
and medical journals. He couldnt believe his eyes. There
was medical research claiming that the higher a cigarettes
pH level, the more readily the body absorbs nicotine
and that adding menthol elevates pH levels. A 1968 study suggested
that burned menthol breaks down into various carcinogens.
Other research showed that menthol may anesthetize lung cilia
the tiny hairs that sweep the bad stuff out
so the body doesnt get rid of tar as effectively. Yet
another study suggested smokers absorb more toxins from menthol
cigarettes than from non-menthol ones; one theory has it that
menthols taste inspires smokers to inhale more deeply.
then, in documents from the Minnesota lawsuit, Brown found
information he believes confirmed his hunch that the industry
had known about menthol all along an early industry
paper discussing outside research from the 30s and 40s
showing that menthol, even in small doses, destroys mucus
industry HAD to know," Brown argues. "If medical
science thought to test these cigarettes, theres no
way this side of HEAVEN that the industry didnt test
when the preacher called in the lawyers.
Browns four-person legal team not to mention
the 22 attorneys representing the tobacco industry
are gearing up for a difficult battle. Civil rights case law
is being reviewed. Tobacco industry documents stamped PERSONAL
AND CONFIDENTIAL are being sifted through. And soon the legal
wrangling will land Brown in the national spotlight yet again.
But on this unseasonably warm autumn morning, Brown has a
more immediate battle to fight: winning over a new congregation.
you take a look at your prayer book, youll notice todays
prayer begins by saying, STIR our hearts, O God.
STIR our hearts. Get us" Browns voice takes
on a raspy growl "AGITATED."
Browns first month as pastor of Redeemer Lutheran
Church, and hes putting on a good show for his Sunday
sermon. Standing behind the pulpit in a white robe, Brown
rocks back and forth on his heels and stirs the air with a
finger; the smile never leaves his face, that long front tooth
in the passage we read, it talks about SOMETHING coming out
of NOTHING," he continues, then launches into a story:
"In my yard, I have a tree that was struck by lightning
three years ago, and LORD knows I thought it was dead, cause
it didnt produce ANYTHING since then. Its been
handful of congregants watches expectantly. Brown has been
delivered yet another "handymans special,"
a church blessed with a beautiful building but suffering from
a serious membership deficiency. He steps his delivery up
I was out there raking the leaves the other day and looked
at this tree," Brown trumpets. "And LO and BEHOLD,
there was SOMETHING there, a SHOOT that hadnt been there
before!" In a hushed voice: "Its still alive."
Pause. "SOMEHOW, it produced LIFE!" Brown steps
from behind the pulpit and into the aisle.
theres a change in the air: Congregants are wrinkling
their noses in disapproval. For Browns new parish is
no rollicking North Philadelphia church, but rather a wealthy
East Falls one, in a stately neighborhood of sloping lawns
and two-car garages. The congregation of 12 consists of white
women over 60 who sing their hymns at a dirge-like pace in
the green-and-gold glow of the stained glass. They eye Brown
warily as he paces in the aisle, unaccustomed to this level
of activity from a pastor. Two white-haired heads lean together:
Hes at it again! Brown takes their grimaces in stride.
He whips his sermon toward a crescendo, letting loose his
preacherly growl, bringing all his mastery of emphasis, timing
and rhythm into play:
is a message for us this morning. Weve got new SHOOTS
beginning to grow here at Redeemer." Pause. "SOMEBODY
thought we were dead. But GOD has declared" awed
whisper "were alive. And thats the
message that were to take away today! Its TIME
to get EXCITED! Its time to watch the SHOOTS of our
ministry grow, to serve the glory of our Lord and Savior Jesus
Christ! God is choosing to STIR OUR HEARTS! Each one of us
this morning is a witness that Redeemer is not dead!"
A pregnant pause while Brown makes eye contact with his congregants.
"We are still," he hisses slowly, "very much
birdlike ladies nod in unison.
the service, they flock to shake Browns hand. "Good
sermon today," says one tiny woman, half Browns
size. She pulls him closer; he bends to hear. "A little
too loud, though," she adds. "But good."
watches them head downstairs for coffee and cake. "This
is going to be a challenge," he pronounces delicately.
He takes a deep breath. "Let God lead you," he says,
as if to remind himself.