Nothing seemed quite as cool as the way Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart elegantly manipulated their cigarettes in classic black and white films like “Jezebel” and “Casablanca.” In the 1950s, James Dean depicted smoking as rebel cool in “Rebel Without a Cause,” as did John Travolta in “Grease” in the 1970s, prompting thousands of young people to pick up the habit, become addicted and inject millions of dollars into the coffers of Big Tobacco.
The industry undermined the 1971 ban on advertising of tobacco products on TV by creating product placement embedded in the shows. And Big Tobacco CEOs brazenly testified before Congress that nicotine was not addictive, knowing their own research showed otherwise, as revealed by the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement with the suing states attorneys general.
But Big Tobacco greed requires a constant supply of new recruits. Confidential Settlement records and research by the American Legacy Foundation revealed Project SCUM (Sub-Culture Urban Marketing), micro-targeting of minorities and gays through direct and indirect advertising, community outreach, and sponsorships, which the LGBT community did not recognize as market manipulation.
The stealth and public campaigns succeeded and tobacco use skyrocketed, contributing to significant health disparities between LGBT smokers and general public smokers. But the gradual shift of cultural attitudes and the municipal restrictions on smoking areas started stripping away the veneer of coolness to posit smoking as a stinky, dirty bad habit.
But greed dies hard and Big Tobacco has been making a comeback, on screen and in the LGBT community. According to the CDC, PG-13 movies targeting youth went 62% without featuring tobacco since 2017. However, a 2018 report of tobacco-related incidents per PG-13 movie went up 34% and “audience tobacco impressions delivered by youth-related films were 10.3 billion, up 103% from 2017.
As Equality California Institute and 17 other LA-based LGBTQ and health service providers point out in a new OUT Against Big Tobacco Coalition campaign, the tobacco industry is now capitalizing on innovative ways to ensnare new users through slick advertisements, sponsorships and coupons for cool new colorful and flavorful e-cigarettes. While consumers might think e-cigarettes are a way to break the cigarette habit or addiction, brands like Juul in fact deliver more nicotine and can be more harmful, according to three lawsuits filed against Juul since April.
“The Juul is a battery-powered device that converts liquid into a vapor, which the user inhales. It comes with prefilled cartridges called “Juulpods,” which have candy-like flavors, and a USB charger that pops into a cellphone charging block or laptop,” reports Buzzfeed News. “These features, which are supposed to make the Juul a ‘satisfying cigarette alternative’ for adult smokers, have also made it a hit among young people and nonsmokers. The long-term health effects of e-cigarettes like the Juul are not yet known, but nicotine has been long known as a highly addictive substance that can affect brain chemistry.”
“For too long, Big Tobacco has preyed on LGBTQ people, getting us hooked on their toxic products and profiting off our deaths,” Equality California Institute Executive Director Rick Zbur says in a press release. “We won’t let them take advantage of the most vulnerable members of our LGBTQ communities any longer. We look forward to exposing them for exactly what they’re doing to our community and taking every action possible to improve the health and wellbeing of LGBTQ people.”
The new campaign notes that “LGBTQ Californians are more than twice as likely to smoke as their non-LGBTQ peers, and nearly 30,000 LGBTQ people across the country die every year of tobacco-related causes.” Additionally, “estimates of smoking rates among LGBTQ youth range from 38 to 59 percent, compared to just 28 to 35 percent of youth generally.”
This is critical, Samuel Garrett-Pate, communications director of Equality California and the Equality California Institute, tells the Los Angeles Blade that unlike cigarettes, which that visibly burn down with use, a vaper cannot tell from the covered cartridge how much has been inhaled. There is no way to tell, therefore, how much mood-altering vapor is harming the brain and psyche, producing emotional outbursts, anxiety and potentially deadly depression.
The OUT Against Big Tobacco Coalition campaign is trying a kind of harm-reduction approach by not insisting that smokers and vapers stop now. Rather they are reaching out to teachers and GSAs to do trainings about Big Tobacco and building public support for restricting and controlling tobacco-related municipal policies. For instance, they want to restrict flavored tobacco products and ban the redemption of tobacco-related coupons that are often distributed at LGBTQ events such as Pride and Halloween.
“Tobacco companies reported spending $380 million on coupons in 2016 to offset the effects of tobacco tax increases, such as those imposed in the state of California in the aftermath of the passage of Proposition 56 in 2016,” increases that encourage smokers to quit, the Coalition says. Several cities, including New York City and Chicago, have passed redemption restriction measures as a result.
The Coalition is starting in West Hollywood and the San Fernando with the intension of expanding the campaign to cities throughout Los Angeles County.
“There is still a lot of room to pass policies and make changes in our communities that will make it less likely that kids, teens and young adults will start smoking and easier for current smokers to quit,” Brandon Tate, Chair of the OUT Against Big Tobacco Coalition, said in the press release. “It’s really about activating and engaging people to take action and make our communities healthier.”