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Swisher Ain't Sweet

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Marlboro Mild

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HOME > CIVIL RIGHTS LAWSUIT > MEDIA COVERAGE

JUSTICE

Philadelphia Magazine—February 1999

Holy Smokes!
As if tobacco companies didn't have enough troubles . . .
Now comes a North Philly preacher who has sued them for being racist—by pushing tasty but allegedly more lethal menthol cigarettes on the African-American community.

by Sabrina Rubin, Senior Writer

Brothers and sisters. Today I’d 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 PA system.

Looord have mercy.

Now, this preacher used to see schoolchildren pass by the church each day. They’d walk past the abandoned houses, past the bodegas with their checkout counters behind bulletproof glass. They’d 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 couldn’t HELP but look at them. And what would the children see? They’d 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 I’m talking about!

Mm-hmm.
Lord, Lord, Lord.

And you know what this preacher did? This preacher fought back.

That’s right.

Now, this preacher didn’t have money. He didn’t 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.

Mm-mm-mm.

But 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.

[chuckle]

Those 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 research … SUGGESTED … that menthol cigarettes may be MORE cancer-causing, more DEADLY, than regular cigarettes! But that’s 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.

THAT’S when the preacher REALLY got mad. And the preacher filed a fearsome class-action lawsuit, the first of its kind. Because this lawsuit wasn’t based on personal injury law or on product liability law. This lawsuit was unique because it was based on CIVIL RIGHTS law.

And suddenly, the tobacco industry was taking that little North Philly preacher very seriously indeed.

A-men!


This is the way Reverend Jesse Brown speaks: He tells you what he’s going to say. He says what he’s going to say. He reminds you of what he said. Then he’s done.

"Whenever 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 don’t go in it to lose. Other people might not be so sure. But when I start something, AAHH’M SURE we’re gonna win."

He speaks with a rolling cadence, a hypnotic flow that both stirs and soothes, his North Carolina drawl dripping from his tongue. Brown’s 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. It’s also why he’s so successful at anti-tobacco advocacy, since it’s a rare being who isn’t swayed by Jesse Brown’s words.

"We 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 Sandy’s 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 Sandy’s now dearly departed communion set — she’s 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.

"The tobacco-related issues that people of color have, have not been taken seriously," Brown continues. "They aren’t covered by traditional anti-tobacco organizations. The black community has to take up its own causes, ’cause nobody’s gonna do it for us. With that in mind, we filed this lawsuit." Brown grins, revealing a long, twisty front tooth. "It’s like Brown v. Board of Education," he adds gleefully, "Only now it’s Brown v. the tobacco companies!"

Though he may be overstating the point, the 43-year-old minister’s 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.

Explains Brown’s 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 aren’t saying the tobacco industry put out this product with the intention of killing blacks," Adams clarifies. "I’m sure the tobacco companies would prefer not to kill off their customers — it’s bad for business. But it’s an unfortunate side effect — one they had knowledge of. And one which we must hold them accountable for."

The 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 isn’t a civil rights violation at all, but simply good marketing strategy, the same niche-marketing utilized by companies from Nike to McDonald’s. They could — although for now, they’re taking an even more unyielding tack.

"There 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.

Whatever the industry’s position, it is hard to deny it has heavily marketed menthol cigarettes to blacks — a trend the Surgeon General’s 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 Extra’s "Different smokes for different folks" — and tend to run on inner-city billboards and in African-American publications.

As the Surgeon General’s 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.

Brown’s lawsuit couldn’t 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.

"Jesse’s 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 won’t bring instant change, but you’ve 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."

If it does, the Reverend Jesse Brown knows — KNOWS — it can only be because it was God’s 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 lead you."

Reverend Brown’s activism began in late 1989 with a little gold-and-black package bearing the name "Uptown" and containing menthol cigarettes made by the world’s second-largest tobacco company, R.J. Reynolds. Reynolds had a specific audience in mind. Uptown’s 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.

Living 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, they’d struggled to feed their growing family while saving up for seminary, with Sandy toiling as an office temp and Jesse working at Arby’s. This was no worse, he reasoned. So Jesse Brown got right to work trying to mend both his church and his new community.

Now, hearing of Uptown’s 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 Uptown’s packaging. All in all, Uptown’s 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 Uptown’s debut, R.J. Reynolds quietly withdrew its test-marketing plan, then soon abandoned Uptown altogether.

"Literally, in 13 days we defeated the industry," Brown recalls. "Thirteen days. No one expected such a resounding victory. It was like David and Goliath."

Before 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. He’d found his niche.

While 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 city’s 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 country.)

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.

Brown 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.

But 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.

In 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. Brown’s bishop warned him he wouldn’t remain churchless for long; he had earned himself a reputation as a miracle-worker.

Brown 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 couldn’t believe his eyes. There was medical research claiming that the higher a cigarette’s 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 doesn’t 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 menthol’s taste inspires smokers to inhale more deeply.

And 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 membranes.

"The industry HAD to know," Brown argues. "If medical science thought to test these cigarettes, there’s no way this side of HEAVEN that the industry didn’t test them, too."

That’s when the preacher called in the lawyers.

Now, Jesse Brown’s 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.

"If you take a look at your prayer book, you’ll notice today’s prayer begins by saying, ‘STIR our hearts, O God.’ STIR our hearts. Get us" — Brown’s voice takes on a raspy growl — "AGITATED."

It’s Jesse Brown’s first month as pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church, and he’s 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 prominent.

"Now, 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 didn’t produce ANYTHING since then. It’s been bare."

The handful of congregants watches expectantly. Brown has been delivered yet another "handyman’s special," a church blessed with a beautiful building but suffering from a serious membership deficiency. He steps his delivery up a notch.

"But 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 hadn’t been there before!" In a hushed voice: "It’s still alive." Pause. "SOMEHOW, it produced LIFE!" Brown steps from behind the pulpit and into the aisle.

Instantly, there’s a change in the air: Congregants are wrinkling their noses in disapproval. For Brown’s 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: He’s 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:

"This is a message for us this morning. We’ve got new SHOOTS beginning to grow here at Redeemer." Pause. "SOMEBODY thought we were dead. But GOD has declared" — awed whisper — "we’re alive. And that’s the message that we’re to take away today! It’s TIME to get EXCITED! It’s 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 … alive."

The birdlike ladies nod in unison.

After the service, they flock to shake Brown’s hand. "Good sermon today," says one tiny woman, half Brown’s size. She pulls him closer; he bends to hear. "A little too loud, though," she adds. "But good."

Brown 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.



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