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HOME > PRESS > SFGATE NEWS ARTICLE FEATURING NAAAPI

Wednesday, November 21, 2002
Tobacco firms courted rights groups

UCSF researchers show attempt to snare black, Latino smokers
by Sabin Russell

American cigarette companies cultivated financial ties with most major civil rights groups in a widespread campaign to attract more black smokers and neutralize opposition to anti-smoking measures, according to tobacco industry documents unearthed by UCSF researchers.

The researchers' report, to be published in the December issue of the journal Tobacco Control, was presented during the National Conference on Tobacco or Health meeting this week in San Francisco.

It prompted black leaders attending the gathering to call for a campaign to reject financial support from the tobacco industry, however worthy the cause. "It's time to take the pledge to leave tobacco money alone," said the Rev. Jesse Brown Jr. of the National Association of African Americans for Positive Imagery.

UCSF researchers Valerie Yerger and Ruth Malone examined more than 700 documents released by cigarette companies as part of a 1998 settlement between various states attorneys general and the tobacco industry. Many of the documents dated from the 1980s.

"The apparent generosity, inclusion and friendship proffered by the industry extract a price from groups in the health of their members," the authors wrote.

RJ Reynolds spokesman David Howard, who said he had not seen the paper and could not comment on its findings, said many companies contribute to organizations strategically.

"We do that so we have an opportunity to have our side heard," Howard told the Associated Press.

The UCSF researchers focused solely on documents related to tobacco industry ties to African American groups. Other industry representatives could not be reached for comment on the report.

Among the organizations that received tobacco industry funding, according to the UCSF study, are the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

"It was a very embarrassing experience for me," said Yerger, who works at UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. "I saw organizations I was a member of. I saw organizations my family was a part of."

Among the documents is a 1984 memo from tobacco giant Brown & Williamson, describing its "Fair Share" agreement with the NAACP, which promised to expand economic opportunities for minority groups. "Clearly, the sole reason for B&W's interest in the black and Hispanic communities is the actual and potential sales of B&W products within these communities and the profitability of these sales. . . . This relatively small and often tightly knit (minority) community can work to B&W's marketing advantage, if exploited properly," the marketing memo states.

A 1991 memo from RJ Reynolds describes a meeting with the Michigan Black Legislative Caucus, where the company was asked to contribute to a black owned hospital. "(We) were assured that our support would be welcomed, regardless of the probable criticism of anti-smoking activists. We were further assured that (the caucus) would in turn support us," the memo states.

"They were buying black leadership," said Charyn Sutton, president of the Onyx Group, a Philadelphia consulting firm that works with black churches in anti-tobacco efforts. "This money has come with a terrible cost," she added. "We've lost an incredible number of our leaders to tobacco-related disease."

An estimated 45,000 African Americans die each year from diseases related to smoking, a greater burden of preventable disease compared to other ethnic groups. Smoking kills a total of 418,000 Americans a year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The formerly secret tobacco industry documents do not specify how much money was paid to various organizations, but the researchers conservatively estimate the figure at $25 million a year.

Sutton said she understands the temptation that hard-pressed black organizations face when offered tobacco industry sponsorship. At one time, she was attempting to raise $500,000 for a Big Brother program in Philadelphia. She was a quarter million dollars short. A tobacco company representative offered to provide the difference, but after consulting with colleagues, she turned it down.

Tobacco companies themselves point with pride to their charitable giving. Philip Morris Companies Inc. describes on its Web site a tradition of philanthropy since 1956.

 



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