Activists discuss Big Tobacco’s predatory tactics against consumers of color


Daily file photo by Madison Smith

Evanston Public Library. Anti-tobacco activists discussed how tobacco corporations are targeting Evanston consumers of color at the Wednesday EPL event.

Xuandi Wang, Reporter

Anti-tobacco advocates discussed Big Tobacco’s latest strategies in dodging regulations and expanding its markets during an online panel Wednesday, hosted by Evanston Public Library as part of its Black History Month series. 

The panel highlighted how the tobacco industry targets young people and communities of color to build a new generation of customers, both locally and nationally. 

Smoking-related illnesses are a leading cause of death in the Black community, said Carol McGruder, co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council. Tobacco products kill about 45,000 African Americans every year. 

According to McGruder, tobacco companies deliberately target African Americans with strategies such as using Black celebrities for endorsement, free giveaways to children and heavy media campaigns to attract Black consumers. 

“We often don’t think of addiction as a contagious disease, but it is,” McGruder said. “When children from Black neighborhoods come into a store for candy and see things that are bad for them growing up, it is going to change how they feel about their lives and themselves.” 

McGruder said she was a part of efforts in California that led to the passage of a bill banning the sale of most flavored tobacco, including menthol cigarettes. 

Kristin Meyer, the community health specialist with Evanston’s Health and Human Services Department, said the city’s tobacco stores have disproportionately targeted communities of color. Over half of tobacco retailers are located in the three wards with the highest proportions of Black residents — the 2nd, 5th and 8th wards. These retailers have adopted heavy marketing strategies, causing communities of color to make up the highest proportion of adults who smoke. 

“With higher availability and marketing discounts, you are more likely to start smoking,” Meyer said. “Those predatory practices are very present in our community.” 

Meyer suggested that potential policy against tobacco use could include banning the sale of flavored tobacco products, increasing taxation on these products, instituting tobacco licensing costs, and strengthening the indoor air quality ordinance. 

Don Zeigler, chair of the Evanston Health Advisory Council, added that Evanston has been a leader in tobacco regulations. It was one of the first communities in Illinois to pass the Clean Air Act in 2006, and the first community in the entire Midwest to pass Tobacco 21 in 2014 — which raised the minimum age for selling and purchasing tobacco products from 18 to 21 — five years before the state passed a similar mandate.

“We have a history of proactive actions on tobacco use, and we should continue to be a leader on this topic in the state of Illinois,” Zeigler said. 

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