It’s time for a slave revolt!
Tobacco’s history has had a long and ugly relationship with the enslavement of others for the benefit of growing the wealth of the few.
While slavery has existed for millennia prior to the cultivation of tobacco, it was the tobacco trade that was particularly instrumental in the development of chattel slavery: slavery where a human being, as well the person’s offspring were owned from the moment of enslavement until their death. People were considered property, without any rights.
Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, tobacco only grew in the Americas. It was considered a sacred plant by the indigenous peoples, who used it in ceremony. When Columbus was offered tobacco along with other gifts by the indigenous people who greeted him, he thought the tobacco so useless and foul smelling he threw it overboard. He learned however that the native peoples prized it as a valuable commodity that could be used in trade.
That trade grew so large it was eventually critical to financing the American Revolution. Unfortunately, it also became probably the most destructive forms of trade ever, outside human trafficking, which, in the form of slavery, supported it. Tobacco farming is labor intensive hard work. Plantations required cheap labor and a lot of it. Hence, the use of slave labor. You can learn more about tobacco’s relationship to the slave trade here.
Tobacco has a secondary relationship to enslavement through addiction. No one is born with a pack of Marlboros in their hands. We ARE born with nose hairs and other means to try and keep particulate matter out of our lungs. However, nicotine is one of the most addictive substances on the planet. Addiction can occur after only smoking a few cigarettes, whether traditional or electronic. Once that happens the brain will keep calling for more and withdrawal symptoms occur if doses are not administered regularly. The tobacco industry found they could “enslave” anyone who happened to fall prey to their marketing and have a customer for life.
Once Big Tobacco understood how addictive nicotine is, they both manipulated levels of nicotine to optimize the product’s addictiveness and aimed marketing campaigns towards various communities. Marlboro, the best-selling brand in the world, wasn’t always so popular. It was originally targeted towards women and its brand color was green. They promoted it to mothers to reduce the stress or parenting. You can check out some of the original ads here. This early campaign was not successful, possibly because it is rare for adults to take up smoking. Smoking almost always starts in the teen years.
So, the advertising team went to the drawing board to figure out how to attract young men and the now (in)famous Marlboro Man was born. An archetypal image, rugged, independent and in charge of his own life. R J Reynolds countered with the Winston Man. Chaining another generation of young people to a substance that kills roughly half the people who use it long term.
This wasn’t the first successful campaign to addict a generation. During World War II until 1976, cigarettes were included in K rations. Cigarette companies acting like they were doing the troops a favor while instead addicting them to an early death even if not killed in combat.
During the 1970’s when women were looking to gain a measure of equality with men in the workplace and to be respected in sports, tobacco companies developed new brands aimed at this market. Virginia Slims sponsored women’s tennis. Slogans like “You’ve come a long way baby” were designed to appeal to women’s longing to feel empowered and treated as equal citizens. Smoking rates among women grew closer to that of men’s smoking rates which had been falling (from over 50%) since the First Surgeon General’s report on smoking was issued in 1964.
Big Tobacco also set its sights on the LGBTQ community by sponsoring Pride events and by Philip Morris through Project Subculture Urban Marketing (SCUM). Yes. It was really named that. As with marketing to other groups, Big Tobacco, primarily Philip Morris, funded important yet overlooked underserved, causes like HIV research in the case of LGBQ communities like they did battered women’s shelters to appeal to women. They also supported the arts with ads in Playbill, the theater program you get when going to a live performance. Now the LGBTQ community has nearly twice the smoking rate of the general population.
Perhaps the most egregious marketing campaign as well as one of the most successful, was the menthol campaign aimed at the African American Community. In 1953 Brown and Williamson, the makers of KOOL cigarettes, notice a slight preference of the African American community for menthol cigarettes and developed a campaign promoting that brand through the sponsorship of community and music events as well as advertising in magazines such as Ebony and others focused towards the black community. As it proved successful, the makers of Newport and Salem followed suit.
Currently about 85% of the cigarettes smoked in the African American and non-Hispanic black community are menthol flavored. Menthol flavoring helps the smoke penetrate more deeply into the lungs, increasing both addiction and the damage done. This has led to increased rates of smoking related diseases in these communities compounding the injustice perpetrated on a population once used as forced labor to pick it.
The Asian American Pacific Islander community has also felt the damage done by tobacco industry targeting. Menthol was especially promoted to these communities and smoking rates of menthol
Fortunately, communities at the local state and even federal level are beginning to act on banning menthol, mint, and other flavors. Swift action is critical in helping to save lives and reduce the outrageous inequities that tobacco has inflicted on vulnerable populations.
What can we do?
In 73 BCE an escaped slave named Spartacus lead the largest slave revolt against the Roman Empire. He amassed an army of roughly 100,000 other slaves who fled their masters to join the revolt, which was eventually put down. You can enjoy the famously inspirational moment in the 1960 Stanley Kubrick movie starting Kirk Douglas as Spartacus where when the army of slaves is finally caught with their backs to the sea, and the slave army is told they will not be punished (although they will have to return to being enslaved) if they turn over Spartacus. As Spartacus rises to turn himself over, others rise to declare that they are Spartacus until the entire army of former slaves is standing and declaring themselves to be Spartacus. You can enjoy that movie clip here.
It’s time we all declare ourselves Spartacus and free ourselves from the tyranny of the tobacco industry, the addiction and death it inflicts on all of us and especially those upon whom they set themselves to victimize. It’s time for all of us to live free.