Big Tobacco continues to target the poor

12/19/2017 09:55 am ET
National Jewish Health

The harder someone struggles with their finances, the more likely they are a target of tobacco companies. It's not a big secret; it's an established marketing strategy. Cigarette companies have even handed out discount coupons along with food stamps.

It seems counter-intuitive. With cigarettes averaging $6 a pack, smoking is an unlikely luxury for anyone on a tight budget. And yet, that customer base is one of Big Tobacco's biggest.

Once a person is dependent on cigarettes, he or she becomes a reliable consumer in difficult times, addicted for years – or life. It adds up: at a pack a day, a smoker will pay about $2,000, every year, unless they find a way to quit.

Nearly 7 in 10 Americans want to give up smoking. By addressing dependence and the influence of targeted marketing, those smokers can put the packs down – keeping more money in their pockets, instead of lining Big Tobacco's.

National Jewish Health

Another day in the neighborhood

In a targeted community, ads for cigarettes are prominent in neighborhood convenience stores, and customers can buy cigarettes one at a time.

Individual cigarettes are a cheap crutch, and a dangerous hook, by design. Tobacco companies know that people living paycheck-to-paycheck need a way to buy single cigarettes when a pack is just too expensive. By making the sale easier, the strategy makes quitting more difficult.

Even though Americans with lower incomes attempt to quit about as often as anyone else, for someone living below the poverty line, chances of quitting are about 1 in 3. That's far worse than the nearly 60 percent success rate for the rest of the country.

While smoking rates have plummeted nationally, lower-income communities have the highest smoking rates, in part because of tobacco industry targeting. If money is tight, the added stress of quitting can amplify the challenge, and if someone hoping to quit lives with a smoker who doesn't, that challenge can be even worse.

However, with the right treatment and support, quitting is possible – even if a smoker is struggling with depression or anxiety, concerned about gaining weight, or facing other pressures that make quitting seem impossible. To get there, all smokers need a fair chance.

National Jewish Health

Take action for yourself and your community

The Truth Initiative has been tracking tobacco marketing and risks in low-income neighborhoods, and their findings are disturbing. Stores selling tobacco are more densely concentrated in those neighborhoods; there is more point-of-sale marketing, like in-store discounts; and those shops are more likely to be near schools. Tobacco has become a real social justice concern in these communities.

It is also evident that when comprehensive tobacco control policies are in place, people find it easier to quit, and when governments hold retailers to the same standards regardless of neighborhood, people are less likely to get hooked on tobacco products. More communities and businesses are also now providing quit support, an activity I've seen grow through our QuitLine at National Jewish Health.

If you look at a map of where tobacco use is highest, the states with the most smokers tend to be those with the fewest laws to keep tobacco marketing and other challenges in check. Laws work.

To fight back, anyone can get involved at the local, state and national level to encourage policies that help people steer clear of tobacco and protect public health. The health of a community is impacted by the health of its individuals, and all of us can get involved to find solutions. Targeting from tobacco companies is real, but you can control its impact through action in your community, in your home and in your wallet.

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