Killing Us With Kindness: The Interdependence of African-Americans and Big Tobacco


“We don’t smoke that stuff, we just sell it. We reserve the right to smoke for the young, the poor, the Black, and the stupid.”…said an R.J. Reynolds Tobacco executive in response to a male model who was to be the newest face of Winston cigarettes.

The research I conducted as former chairperson of the advocacy group, Leon County Students Working Against Tobacco (SWAT) sparked a personal interest within me to find out how Big Tobacco does it. How do they continue to make billions of dollars from the millions who are addicted to their deadly products?

I found the relationship between this multi-billion dollar industry and African-Americans most interesting. According to the CDC, tobacco-related illnesses account for nearly 45,000 African-American deaths each year. An estimated 1.6 million Blacks under age 18 will become lifelong smokers; of those, at least 500,000 are expected to die of a tobacco-related illness. These figures stem from a complex history-one that is deeply rooted in the progression of Black people in America.

Our ancestors labored dawn-to-dusk on tobacco plantations for hundreds of years. Slaves could only reap and garner the tobacco-never were they given the privilege to smoke it. I believe that such a restriction began the Black man’s craving to one-day use the product on his own terms.

Big Tobacco has done more to benefit and bury African-Americans than any other industry. Early in the 20th century, tobacco executives financed the establishment of a Black hospital – conveniently located in the hometown of R.J. Reynolds.

No other corporate giant in the 1950’s and 1960’s surpassed Big Tobacco in hiring and promoting African-American employees. More recently, tobacco companies have been sponsored political, cultural, and sporting events with predominantly Black attendance. How philanthropic!

We must take the initiative to speak out against the double-edged sword of Big Tobacco’s largesse.  Several Black celebrities portray tobacco as a fashionable, glamorous, and harmless product in films, song lyrics, and on social networks.

There must be a greater presence of tobacco prevention education within African-American communities. Will we continue to turn a blind eye to the predatory tobacco companies who have been killing us with kindness?

They forced our ancestors to pick it, now they want us to smoke it. We cannot allow these statistics to prevail. We must stand up against Big Tobacco, or each year 45,000 of us will permanently lie down.