Tobacco marketers targeting vulnerable populations, researcher says

Daniel Giovenco concedes there have been great strides made in reducing tobacco use. The percentage of U.S. adults who smoke every day has hit an all-time low, plunging below 15% for the first time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This 15% masks a lot of problems because these are national rates,” Giovenco recently told an audience at UWM.

Giovenco says tobacco use is still a public health crisis – especially when it comes to African American and Latino populations. Tobacco companies target African American communities at a rate 10 times higher than other communities, he said.

“We can’t forget this public health issue because it’s affecting disproportionally vulnerable populations,” Giovenco said.

Giovenco, assistant professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, has spent much of his academic career studying how marketing by tobacco companies influences African American and Latino communities.

Presentation at UWM

Giovenco came to Milwaukee April 4 to share his research with the faculty and students of UWM’s Zilber School of Public Health. His presentation was in conjunction with two Milwaukee-based partners: the Wisconsin African American Tobacco Prevention Network and the Wisconsin Tobacco Prevention and Poverty Network.

A man looks at a projection on a wall while talking to a roomful of people.
Daniel Giovenco, assistant professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, talks at the Zilber School of Public Health at UWM recently. (UWM Photo/Troye Fox)

Linnea Laestadius, assistant professor of public health policy and administration at UWM, introduced Giovenco for his presentation. Like Giovenco, Laestadius conducts similar research on tobacco marketing in minority neighborhoods.

Some smaller, more vulnerable demographics show much higher rates of tobacco use than the national average. For example, 26.1% of people under the poverty line are tobacco users as well as 27.4% of people who are uninsured.

“The marketplace is so much more diverse now. We are not talking about cigarettes anymore. We are also talking about other tobacco products,” Giovenco said.

Vaping rises in popularity

A variety of new tobacco products have hit the market in recent years, most prominently electronic cigarettes – often called vape pens – like the JUUL. The tobacco gets turned into vapors in the electronic cigarette, and then the user inhales to get their nicotine fix.

“We don’t want any of these products in an ideal world but from a scientific perspective they are not equal in risk. They fall more on a continuum of risk,” said Giovenco.

These new tobacco products like vape pens and smokeless tobacco are less harmful for people because there is less risk of being exposed to thousands of toxins, unlike with cigarettes or cigars.

Tobacco use that involves burning for the user to get the high releases thousands more toxins to the user’s body than tobacco use that involves vaporization or absorption through the skin.

Unequal use of less harmful products

Switching from the traditional tobacco products to the newer products is a method Giovenco called harm reduction. Wealthy white populations are more likely to participate in harm reduction while black and Latino populations are more likely to stick with the unhealthier tobacco products.

“What I hypothesize as a really strong driver of these differences is how these products are marketed in different communities,” Giovenco said.

While targeted marketing is nothing new for tobacco companies, the reach and effect of their targeted marketing is.

One good example of this targeted marketing is the popular cigar company Black & Mild just came out with three new flavors for their cigars: Jazz, Rhythm, and Blues.

“Any music fan will tell you that these musical styles Jazz or R&B were pioneered by the African American community and is a source of pride,” Giovenco said. “The same descriptors are now used by this company to market a very deadly product, a very addictive product right back to that community.”

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