Tobacco marketing is targeting California's low-income and African American youth, according to researchers who examined advertising throughout the state.
Academic researchers funded by the state’s Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program found that there was greater visibility of menthol cigarette advertising at retailers near high schools where there are larger African American student populations.
According to the most recent statistics issued by the Federal Trade Commission, the tobacco industry spent $10 billion on marketing in 2008.
“There is a systematic targeting (of disadvantaged communities) by the tobacco industry, which is an extraordinary public health problem,” said Lisa Henriksen of the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who presented the research at a legislative briefing in Sacramento last week. “The addition of menthol to cigarettes makes it easier to smoke and more difficult to quit.”
Henriksen’s research [PDF], published last year, found that as the proportion of black students increased at a California high school, so did the share of both menthol-related advertising and Newport brand promotions at nearby retailers. The study looked at all cigarette advertising, but specifically analyzed promotions and price discounts for Newport and Marlboro, two of the most popular brands with underage smokers, researchers said.
The University of Michigan’s Robert Lipton also presented research at the briefing showing that in the Los Angeles area, communities that tended to be dense, poor and minority had greater rates of underage tobacco sales.
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Henriksen’s ongoing study of menthol cigarette marketing has found that African American students were better able to recognize a Newport ad than teens of other races. Regardless of race, however, nonsmoking students who were familiar with the Newport ad were 49 percent more likely to start using tobacco than nonsmoking students who weren’t.
And according to a recent analysis of California K-12 schools conducted by Henriksen, tobacco retailers were within 600 feet of 24 percent of school campuses; 38 percent of schools were within 1,000 feet of a place where cigarettes were sold. Stores near California high schools featured an average of 25 cigarette ads, Henriksen said at the briefing.
“We’re really talking about a horrendous burden on low-income and communities of color, where tobacco retailers are more highly concentrated,” Henriksen said. “The kinds of stores in those communities contain more ads for cigarettes, and they also have more underage sales violations.”
A spokesman for Philip Morris’ parent company, Altria Group, which manufactures Marlboro cigarettes, said in a statement that the company is “committed to responsibly marketing its cigarettes to adult smokers.”
“Kids should not smoke any cigarettes, menthol or non-menthol,” Altria spokesman David Sutton wrote in an e-mail. “Based on our review of the limited literature and data available, menthol cigarettes do not appear to have a unique role in smoking initiation.”
Lorillard, the makers of Newport cigarettes, did not respond to a request for comment.
Although California has the second-lowest smoking rate in the country at about 12 percent, tobacco use among African Americans in the state is between 3 and 6 percent higher than the statewide average, according to the California Department of Public Health.
Carol McGruder, co-chairwoman of the Oakland-based African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, said advertising aimed at black youth is one reason smoking rates remain high. Henriksen's research “validates what we knew, which is that the tobacco industry is targeting our community,” McGruder said.
Eliminating disparities and minimizing youth exposure to tobacco advertising are among the goals [PDF] of the state Tobacco Education and Research Oversight Committee, which advises the California Tobacco Control Program, said Dr. Michael Ong, an assistant professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA who chairs the committee.
Ong said locating tobacco retailers near schools is not good public health policy. “In terms of trying to reduce harms from tobacco use in California, we do need to try to further restrict easy access to tobacco, particularly from our youth,” he said.
Last week’s briefing on tobacco advertising and menthol cigarettes comes at a time when policy issues are being considered at the national and state level.
The Food and Drug Administration is considering a ban on menthol additives to cigarettes. In June, California voters will consider Proposition 29, a ballot initiative that would impose a $1-per-pack tax on cigarettes. A portion would go to research on tobacco, and the state Tobacco Education and Research Oversight Committee has endorsed the bill.
Cigarette makers like Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds oppose the ballot initiative and have started a campaign committee called Californians Against Out-of-Control Taxes and Spending, which argues that the state “can’t afford to start a new billion-dollar spending program when we have a $10+ billion budget deficit and can’t pay for critically-needed existing programs like education and health care.”