Ads target minority smokers
Tom Sellers was a chain smoker; two packs of cigarettes a day. He was addicted and nothing could rid him of his habit.
But in the late 1970s, his mother, also a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with cancer and died just before her 51st birthday.
It was a trauma that turned Sellers not only into a non-smoker, but also into an activist, spurring him to join a crusade to curb tobacco use among minorities.
''The tobacco industry is targeting their sales in the African-American and Latino community,'' said Sellers, 50, who is black. ''Brands like Kool and Newport are targeted at people like me. They are targeted at black folks. They are targeted at young men and women in the black community.''
Beginning today, 30-second television spots will debut on stations throughout Massachusetts, using frightening and tragic real-life stories in an effort to get cigarettes out of the hands of minorities.
Sellers, and Ronaldo Martinez, who has cancer of the larynx, will appear in the public service ads sharing their personal testimonies.
''What made me stop was watching my mother die and watching her go through fighting lung cancer,'' said Sellers, a Brookline resident who is chief financial officer for the American Cancer Society of New England. ''I just watched her waste away until there wasn't really much of anything left.''
The television ads, created and produced by Geovision, a minority owned marketing agency in Boston, is the latest in a series of efforts by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to curtail smoking among people of color, specifically minority men.
African-American men are 50 percent more likely than white men to be diagnosed with lung cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationwide, 45,000 African Americans die from diseases related to smoking.
Among Hispanic males, the national smoking rate rose from 8 percent in 1991 to 13.2 percent in 1997. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among Hispanics, according to CDC.
DPH Commissioner Dr. Howard K. Koh said minority men are being preyed upon.''The tobacco industry has literally contaminated every crevix of every culture,'' said Koh. ''Their strategy is to make cigarette smoking desirable and the acceptable norm, and this is taking place especially in the minority community.''
Koh, who is Korean-American, said that he is ''acutely aware'' that minority neighborhoods and publications are being bombarded by images meant to entice minorities to smoke. He said tobacco advertisement spending in black-oriented magazines like Essence and Jet has increased recently by 51 and 46 percent, respectively.
''We hope to counter these advertisements,''said Koh, adding that Massachusetts has experienced a significant decline in recent years in the number of smokers. ''We want to show that cigarettes have a devastating impact on these men and their families.''
Filmed in local neighborhood settings across Boston, the spots are designed to reach the maximum number of minority viewers. Several ads were broadcast last week in Spanish in between the Latin Grammy awards, and officials say the response is encouraging.
''These are real life stories,'' said Koh. ''They are set in the very places where our target audience lives, works, and plays.''
The ads featuring Martinez, produced in English and in Spanish, showcase the 46-year-old man talking about the toll that throat cancer has had on his life.
''I lost my voice and almost died from cigarettes,'' he says in the ad. ''I had to give up the things I enjoyed most in life.''
A spokesman for one of the nation's largest tobacco companies maintained that the industry is intent about heightening awareness of the dangers of tobacco among minority men.
''We want to get to kids before they make the decision to smoke, so they don't pick it up,'' said Brendan McCormick, a spokesman for Philip Morris. ''We've created ads aimed at parents to keep their eyes on their cigarettes at home and around the house.''
It is unclear how effective the DPHS ads will be, but recent studies conducted by Boston University's School of Public Health indicate that young people exposed to anti-smoking advertisements were less likely than their peers who had not seen advertisements to become regular smokers.