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Why are 72% of smokers from lower-income communities?

Nearly 3 in 4 smokers are from lower-income communities. Far from a coincidence, this statistic reveals a tobacco industry strategy to appeal to lower-income, less-educated consumers.

Tobacco companies have targeted low-income populations in many ways over many years, creating smoking rate disparities that did not previously exist. In fact, the smoking rate was higher among those with more years of education in 1940, before the health effects of smoking became widely known and before the industry started targeting low-income individuals.


Nearly 3 in 4 smokers are from lower-income communities

At different points in the past 60 years, tobacco companies have handed out free cigarettes to children in housing projects, issued tobacco coupons with food stamps and explored giving away financial products like prepaid debit cards. Today, several major tobacco industry practices contribute to higher smoking rates in low-income communities.

More retailers and more advertising.

There are an estimated 375,000 tobacco retailers in the U.S. — about 27 times more than McDonald’s and 28 times more than Starbucks — and they are disproportionately located in low-income communities. Low-income neighborhoods are also more likely to have tobacco retailers near schools than other neighborhoods.

A greater number of tobacco retailers means community members face more exposure to tobacco marketing. Marketing in retail environments, including in-store advertising, discounts and product displays behind checkout counters, is the tobacco industry’s main marketing channel, accounting for the overwhelming majority of Big Tobacco’s marketing budget. Retail marketing made up 95 percent of the tobacco industry’s more than $8 billion marketing expenditure in 2015.

Retail marketing is linked to an increased likelihood of young people starting to smoke and decreased success for people attempting to quit. About one-third of teenage experimentation with smoking can be directly attributed to tobacco advertising and promotional activities in retail environments.

Discounting and keeping prices low.

Raising the cost of cigarettes is one of the most effective ways to stop people from smoking. That’s why the industry puts a massive amount of resources behind keeping cigarette prices low and ensuring that its target low-income demographic will continue to be able to afford tobacco products.

In 2015, the tobacco industry spent more than 80 percent of its marketing budget, or $7 billion, on discounting practices or lowering the cost of cigarettes. It also spends millions to fight against cigarette tax increases. For example, Big Tobacco raised more than $71 million in 2016 to fund a campaign that defeated California’s ballot initiative to raise the cost of cigarette packs by $2 to an average pack price of $5.53.

It’s no coincidence that states with the lowest cigarette prices also have some of the highest smoking rates. A 2017 Truth Initiative® report on a group of 12 contiguous states with smoking rates on par with a number of developing countries, “Tobacco Nation,” illustrates how low prices and high smoking rates are linked. Cigarette packs, on average, are 19 percent cheaper in Tobacco Nation ($5.48) than in the rest of the U.S. ($6.72). What’s the result? Just compare West Virginia, the state with the highest adult smoking rate, with New York, the state with the highest average price per cigarette pack. Cigarettes cost $10.48 in New York, where 14.2 percent of adults smoke. In West Virginia, where nearly a quarter of adults smoke — a 54 percent higher rate than in New York — a pack of cigarettes costs 45 percent less at $5.77.

A 2017 analysis found that tax hikes of $.71 to $4.63 per cigarette pack could yield an 8 to 46 percent reduction in cigarette use.

Increasing addiction over the past 50-plus years.

The surgeon general’s 2014 report found that the cigarettes today pose an even greater risk of death and disease — specifically lung cancer — than the cigarettes sold when the first surgeon general’s report on smoking was issued in 1964. Why? During the last 50-plus years, the tobacco industry has genetically engineered cigarettes to have twice the amount of nicotine and be even more addictive.

Targeting people in low-income communities with an even more addictive product ensures that they will continue to buy it. The impact of the smoking rate disparity has far-reaching consequences. A 2016 report on the economics of tobacco from the National Cancer Institute and World Health Organization states that “tobacco use accounts for a significant share of the health disparities between the rich and poor” worldwide.

Learn more about smoking in low-income communities.