Big Tobacco's Racial Profiling Challenged in Court

Gloria Tucker's mother and grandmother both smoked cigarettes. Both died from smoking-related health problems. An African American woman, Tucker believes that her loved ones' deaths were due to "racial profiling" by big tobacco companies. And she's got the documents to prove it.

On June 7, Miami attorney J.B. Harris filed a lawsuit on Tucker's behalf. The suit seeks $1 billion in punitive damages collectively from Philip Morris USA, Lorillard Tobacco, R.J. Reynolds, and Liggett Group. It accuses the companies of using predatory marketing techniques to target African Americans. Central to the case are hundreds of tobacco industry documents that detail how companies designed cigarettes especially for African Americans; tailored marketing campaigns to lower-income, less-educated African Americans; and continued to do so long after the U.S. Surgeon General's 1964 declaration that cigarettes are hazardous to health.

"Superstitious, Unplanned, Impulsive"

Many formerly secret tobacco industry documents are filled with racist assertions. An R.J. Reynolds (RJR) market research report from 1982 discusses how the company could sell more cigarettes to African Americans. The author, Joaquin Pericas of RJR's Marketing Development Department, refers to African Americans as "an increasingly important opportunity segment" who, he claims, have "superstitious, unplanned, impulsive life styles."

Citing high smoking rates among African Americans, Pericas concludes:

Blacks tend to buy less things to improve themselves, they appear less concerned about health related issues. ... Blacks have less concern for the future and live from one day to the next. They buy products for instant gratification.

While Pericas' memo may sound disapproving, he and other RJR executives were happily calculating how their company could exploit these alleged community traits to boost profits. Pericas recommends placing more African American models in general market cigarette ads.

In 1989, another RJR marketing memo suggests selling mini-packs of 10 cigarettes, instead of the usual 20, in U.S. inner cities. The mini-packs would appeal to African Americans, the document claims, because "Blacks smoke fewer cigarettes per day and have less money, making a 10 pack an ideal configuration."

Uptown Goes Down in Flames

The following year, RJR debuted "Uptown," a new brand of menthol cigarette tailor-made for African American smokers. This time, the company was in for a rude awakening.

Large, well-coordinated protests by African Americans greeted Uptown's test marketing campaign. RJR was eventually forced to pull the brand off the market. In a damage assessment of the Uptown fiasco, RJR wonders how the company could have predicted that the brand would be met with such resistance. The company's brilliant analysis is that:

A white-owned tobacco company, targeting a cigarette to Blacks, a product widely accepted as harmful to one's health, would undoubtedly surface that inherent distrust inevitably described as "institutional genocide."

What lesson did RJR learn from the Uptown debacle? Apparently that they needed better marketing data, to:

... assess the amount of damage done to the new cigarette concept and the image of R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company among Blacks. The study would also provide the necessary market understanding and insight for developing communication and marketing strategies designed to help R. J. Reynolds reach its goal of introducing a new menthol cigarette to which Black consumers respond favorably.

A Short Window of Opportunity

Gloria Tucker's lawsuit follows a July decision by Florida's Supreme Court, which overturned a record $145 billion punitive damages award in another lawsuit against tobacco companies. The state Supreme Court also denied class-action status to the estimated 700,000 eligible plaintiffs in the earlier case. Now each must file her or his own lawsuit -- by January 11, 2008.

Tucker's lawyer, J.B. Harris, told the Miami Herald that, given the tight deadline, "Attempting to reach out to those people who may qualify and letting them know of their rights is like sprinting up Mount Everest with a ball and chain around your waist." He's hoping that Tucker's case will help spread the word.

With millions of internal tobacco industry documents now public, Harris and other lawyers have extensive, irrefutable documentation for their cases. In addition to informing the public about the depths to which corporations can and will sink in pursuit of profit, the documents may help secure some measure of justice for those hurt by the tobacco industry's greed. And if tobacco companies are held responsible for their racist practices, perhaps other corporations will be less likely to exploit communities of color in the future.

Anne Landman is a public health researcher and the Center for Media and Democracy's TobaccoWiki Editor.

The complaint filed in Florida's Miami-Dade Circuit Court on behalf of Gloria Tucker can be downloaded by clicking on the link below.

PDF icon Tucker Complaint.pdf0 bytes