Cigarette Company Expands to Food, Beverages Using Same Race-Based Playbook to Woo Customers

By Suzanne Leigh

A tobacco company that diversified into the food and drink business targeted black and Hispanic consumers in the same way as they had courted them as cigarette smokers, according to a study by UC San Francisco researchers.

soda bottles

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Kim H. Nguyen, ScD, together with Laura Schmidt, PhD, Stanton Glantz, PhD, and Casey Palmer, RN, from the UCSF Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies and the School of Medicine, found that U.S food and beverage companies had earlier ignored minority groups because they were not considered “viable market segments.” However, after General Foods and Kraft Foods were acquired by Philip Morris and became Kraft General Foods in the 1980s, they duplicated the race-based sales strategies that had resulted in expanded tobacco sales to non-whites.

In their study, published in the American Journal of Public Health on Jan. 16, 2020, the researchers uncovered Kraft’s efforts to sell to minorities by drawing from corporate papers such as memos, financial reports and company newsletters that are housed in the UCSF Truth Tobacco Industry Documents Library.

To entice black people to try their cigarette brands, Philip Morris advertised heavily in minority media – by the mid-1980s 60 percent of advertising in black newspapers came from tobacco companies – in addition to sponsoring musical events and festivals, and providing financial support to black leadership organizations.

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This followed a 1986 market research study on Tang, another sugary beverage that had been acquired by Philip Morris. It stated that Hispanic households had favorable market characteristics including “less concern about salt, sugar or calorie levels.” The report recommended Spanish ads, street fairs and cultural events.

The researchers noted that minorities populations have high exposure to the marketing of processed food and sugary beverages, and had poor nutrition profiles. From 2003 to 2004, 54 percent of blacks and 42 percent of Mexican-Americans were obese, versus 30 percent of whites.