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When anti-smoking advocate La Tanisha Wright looked at the details of an agreement reached last month between the three largest American tobacco companies, the Justice Department and a coalition of anti-tobacco groups, she said her "heart dropped."
Part of the settlement includes a set of "corrective statements," public-service advertisements about the health effects of tobacco use and admissions that tobacco companies knowingly lied about the health consequences of tobacco. These are supposed to run in more than 600 newspapers around the country and on three TV networks.
But to Wright's amazement, African-American media, which saw extensive targeted advertising by the tobacco industry for decades, were excluded from the deal.
The revelation stunned Wright. But it also offered anti-tobacco-industry activists and civil rights organizations a way to fight back. Now a court battle is under way, led by African-American media and civil rights groups, to try to remedy the omission and ensure that corrective statements appear in front of African-Americans.
The two main representatives of African-American media, the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters (NABOB) and the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), have filed a legal brief requesting that African-American media be represented in the corrective advertising. The NAACP has filed a similar brief.
The court has given the parties in the case until Feb. 18 to respond.
"I'm just wondering who dropped the ball," Wright said. "Why wasn't there a bigger fight for African-Americans?"
The relationship between race and tobacco is a particular passion for Wright — and an important part of her own story. It also signifies her coming full circle, from someone who once worked for the industry to one who now campaigns against it.
The tobacco giant Brown and Williamson recruited Wright at a job fair held by the NAACP. The firm then sent her to predominantly African-American neighborhoods of Detroit, where she visited retailers to promote certain campaigns and products. It was a good job with excellent benefits and started her on a great career as a successful executive.
But she could not escape her growing doubts about the industry and her role in it, especially the aggressive targeting of black communities and young people. The breaking point for Wright was the Kool Mixx campaign. Her job was to encourage retailers to place colorful Kool Mixx displays — which featured cartoon images of rappers, DJs and partying African-Americans — near cookie and candy sections.
"That campaign just made me sick. I really understood that this company was targeting African-American youth. I could see it clearly," she said. "I didn't even want a severance package. I wanted to quit."
She became a whistle-blower and a tobacco-prevention advocate, giving talks and sharing her insider's knowledge with anti-tobacco groups.
Now she firmly believes that tobacco companies need to redress their targeting of African-Americans.
Unnamed tobacco executive
As recounted by ad model Dave Goerlitz
Suits against tobacco companies have been ongoing since 1999, and a new round has just begun.
"This is important because the African-American community, young people in particular, were heavily targeted by companies with advertising to promote new smokers," said James Winston, the NABOB's executive director. "The notion that you'd then correct that by having them advertise but not having them advertise to the audience they were targeting makes no sense."
The exploitative relationship between the tobacco industry and African-Americans goes back to the plantations of colonial America. More recently, tobacco companies have spent tens of millions of dollars on advertising to African-American audiences and targeted them with menthol cigarettes, which health researchers have found are more dangerous than others.
Tobacco company executives can be explicit about how they approach African-Americans and other marginalized communities, according to some with inside knowledge. Dave Goerlitz, a former model for RJ Reynolds advertisements, testified that when he asked an executive why he didn't smoke, the unnamed executive responded, "We don't smoke that s---, we just sell it. We reserve that right for the young, the poor, the black and the stupid."
The effects of this relationship have been damaging. Though African-Americans smoke at a rate roughly similar to other demographic groups', they see higher mortality rates.
Smoking causes 80 percent of deaths from lung cancer among African-Americans, the third-largest killer for that community, after heart disease and stroke, which can also be caused by smoking, according to a 2012 report from the American Cancer Society.
The average incidence of lung and bronchial cancer is 23 percent higher for African-American men than among white men, and the average death rate is 28 percent higher, the same study found.
"We smoke just about the same rate as the national average, slightly higher among African-American males, but our lung cancer rates and dying rates are almost three times as much," said Delmonte Jefferson, executive director of the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network (NAATPN).
"We need to start talking about what we need to do to address these disparities. Education and information are very important."
If the NABOB and NNPA request is granted, an unspecified portion of the $30 million to $40 million will be spent on African-American media in an attempt to make up for decades of targeting, according to those requesting the corrective statements.
That's only fair, according to Cloves Campbell of the NNPA.
"The bottom line is that the tobacco companies have to spend a lot of money to rectify this situation. They're looking for the quickest, easiest way out. They'll ignore that there's a lot of information out there (about the targeting of African-Americans)," he said.
But speed may be the big problem. This case against the tobacco industry was brought up by the Justice Department while Bill Clinton was president, and remedies have yet to be seen.
"The tobacco companies have appealed this case every step of the way and done everything they can to avoid having to tell the truth to the American people," said Vince Wilmore of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, one of the intervenors in the case.
Cloves Campbell, chairman
National Newspaper Publishers Association
How African-American media came to be excluded from the deal remains unclear. Spanish-language newspapers will carry the corrective statements.
The decision where to place the statements was based on research provided to the court by the organizations bringing the suit and the Justice Department. The NAATPN was one of the intervenors in the case, along with a host of other anti-tobacco organizations.
"To say that it's an oversight would be letting them off the hook," said Campbell.
Judge Gladys Kessler, who has overseen this suit as well as other big tobacco cases, seems to agree. In a Jan. 22 hearing, she said she was "concerned" about the distribution of the corrective statements and indicated that she is sympathetic to the requests from civil rights groups.
But concerns remain about the slow pace of the proceedings. A lawyer representing the Justice Department emphasized the desire to move the implementation along quickly. It is unlikely that any corrective statements will appear before 2015 — possibly much later.
Tobacco companies contacted by Al Jazeera either did not respond to a request for comment or declined to make a statement about ongoing litigation.
However, for La Tanisha Wright, who still feels outrage over the targeting of African-Americans, a just solution can't come soon enough.
"(Tobacco companies) have pockets deep enough to drag this on forever," she said. "At some point, they have to have this campaign for the African-American community. I just hope it doesn't take too long."
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