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Outing the Marlboro Man 

Document reveals new details on how tobacco companies target gays

Wednesday, Feb 16 2000
Since Philip Morris became the first major tobacco company to advertise in a gay-interest magazine in 1992, the tobacco industry has aggressively courted the gay market, and for good reason: Studies show that gays smoke at significantly higher rates than the general population.

To better attract gay smokers, Philip Morris methodically researched their tastes, attitudes -- even their psyches -- hoping to understand what makes them light up. One selling point, Philip Morris discovered, was a longtime icon of American masculinity -- the Marlboro Man.

According to a document recently made public as part of the massive, nationwide litigation against tobacco companies by numerous states, researchers hired by Philip Morris conducted focus groups among gay smokers in San Francisco in 1994. The study, detailed in a previously confidential report to Philip Morris executives, went so far as to practically out the Marlboro Man.

To the gay consumer, the report concluded, the Marlboro Man is "the ultimate stud ... orally fixated (positive) ... and maybe a great one-nighter."

Philip Morris could use its trademark cowboy to attract gay smokers, the researchers with New York-based Guiles & Associates suggested. "In a society where male homosexuality is often interpreted to mean non-masculinity, Marlboro is particularly appreciated as a cue to manhood," the study concluded. "Marlboro's success in this context depends wholly on the relevance of this cowboy image to the world (fantasy and real) of these gay consumers."

The February 1994 focus group report was discovered last month among the millions of pages of internal documents that tobacco companies were required to release as part of the settlement of the states' lawsuit. It is believed to be the first such document to surface detailing tobacco industry efforts to target gay customers, says Anne Landman of the American Lung Association in Colorado. Landman found the 29-page report on Jan. 10 during an ongoing search of the files that tobacco companies have posted on the Internet.

Kati Otto, a Philip Morris spokesperson, would not comment on the study, except to say that she was "not aware of any marketing directed specifically to the gay population. Our marketing is designed to appeal to all adults who choose to smoke, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation."

But Dr. Ronald Stall, an epidemiologist at University of California, San Francisco, argues otherwise. Last December, he published the most recent study showing that the proportion of gay men who smoke is significantly higher than that of men in the general population: 41 percent vs. 28 percent.

Stall says more gay men may smoke -- and find it harder to quit -- because of a stronger affiliation with bar culture than the general population, or perhaps because of greater grieving and depression levels due to the AIDS epidemic. But Stall singles out tobacco advertising as one explanation for why young gay men start smoking in the first place.

"The ads are selling masculinity, and more specifically, proof of butchness. It's a real setup for kids who feel marginalized and unsafe as gay adolescents. Here are these products marketed to prove your heterosexuality -- 'You can be the Marlboro Man!'" Stall says. "It is disturbing to see the increasing targeting of the gay community by tobacco companies."

Indeed, the cigarette ads in gay-interest magazines or newspapers look a little different than they do everywhere else. While a man and woman relax on an exotic beach in the mainstream version of a Parliament Lights ad, the scene shown in gay publications adds another man to the picture. And many lesbians are left to wonder about the ambiguous women used in Virginia Slims ads.

As the tobacco industry continues to reach out to a gay market nearly twice as likely to smoke as heterosexuals, the future of a program specifically intended to convince California's gay population not to smoke may be in jeopardy.

Since 1995, the San Francisco-based nonprofit group Community Focus has received $1 million in state funding -- money collected as part of a 1988 cigarette tax increase -- to wage anti-smoking public service campaigns aimed at a statewide gay audience. But when the California Tobacco Control Program grant came up for renewal last week, Community Focus decided not to reapply. And apparently, no other group applied for a gay-specific statewide grant by the Feb. 8 deadline.

"We're really disappointed. We wanted to see an organization that serves the community make the [education] project their own," says Greir Mathews, who directed what Community Focus called the California Lavender Smokefree Project.

Community Focus is not a gay-based organization, but took on the grant in hopes of incubating it for another group that is, Mathews says. After five years, Community Focus wants to move on to other projects. "Our goal was to always pull out at some time, and we thought we had handed it off successfully," she says.

Mathews says she tried to shop the Lavender project around to gay and lesbian groups throughout the state, but many were not staffed or experienced enough to handle a statewide grant. The Oakland-based Progressive Research and Training for Action (PRTA), however, was willing to try. A gay-based organization, with experience in small state grants, PRTA was a good candidate and eager to step in, Mathews says. But PRTA's executive director, Nancy Ferreya, says she simply wasn't able to meet the grant deadline. "I just had too much on my plate," she says. "I meant to apply, and that's the honest to god truth."

Although officials with the state's Tobacco Control Program won't comment on grant applications received, Mathews and others say they don't know of any gay or lesbian group that applied for statewide funding, so the program may well languish.

After five years of progress, Mathews says she worries a lot stands to be lost. The Lavender project had set up teams of volunteers throughout the state to handle local education initiatives. That grass-roots infrastructure will be gone, she says, unless the teams are willing to continue working locally on their own without funding or organization. And much of the grant was used for statewide anti-tobacco ads such as the popular "Our pride is not for sale" campaign, which will go away, too.

The Lavender project had become a successful lobbyist, urging gay publications and events to shun tobacco money. Last year, they scored a coup when San Francisco Pride officially banned tobacco company sponsorship of its annual parade. "Having tobacco money would make life a whole lot easier, and we wouldn't have to keep biting our fingernails right up to the day of the event," says Pride Executive Director Teddy Witherington. "But ethically, we choose not to support or promote a product with such known health risks. We have a responsibility to our audience, which includes a lot of families and youth at our event. To have tobacco involvement sends the wrong signal."

But Mathews says there is still a long way to go. There are many gay festivals and events that do take tobacco money. National gay magazines like Out and The Advocate, as well as most local publications, unapologetically run cigarette ads. "It's pretty lucrative," says Cynthia Laird, editor of the Bay Area Reporter, a gay newspaper.

It is not uncommon for HIV and AIDS groups, including food banks, to also accept tobacco company donations. While the funds may be welcomed by a needy community, anti-smoking advocates like Mathews call it "dirty" money.

"Raising money for HIV by promoting death in a box does not help our community," says Bob Gordon, who has worked on the Lavender project. "Tobacco companies look like they care, but they try to buy our silence by giving us money so we won't speak out against them."

Mathews worries that not enough people in the gay community are willing to speak out. She points to the difficult time she had in trying to hand off responsibility for the Lavender project. "There is still a lot of apathy in the gay community regarding tobacco," she says. "That's a shame because the tobacco industry is only getting more aggressive in their pursuit of gay smokers."

While the statewide grant deadline for gay-specific tobacco education was missed last week, there is still hope for localized funding in California. A gay and lesbian group in Ventura did apply for state money available for use in its region. And Oakland's PRTA has already secured a grant from Alameda County to start the first outreach to gay smokers exclusively in the East Bay. In San Francisco, the city's Health Department still funds a gay smoking cessation program called the Last Drag.

UCSF's Stall says it is important the gay community have solutions unique from those already available to the general public. "If there are gay-specific reasons for smoking, regular programs won't address those issues and won't work in helping a gay smoker quit," he says. "It would be great if we could at the very least get the rates down to the regular American public, which are still too high."

Gloria Soliz, who teaches the Last Drag classes in San Francisco, says the program works with higher than usual success rates of nearly 40 percent. She says there were hopes to expand the Last Drag beyond the Bay Area, but with no apparent statewide organization or funding, it doesn't seem likely.

"I don't know where this leaves us," Soliz says. "What I do know, is that if more of us are smoking, more of us will be dying. Our community already has enough health-related issues; smoking doesn't have to be one of them."

About The Author

Joel P. Engardio


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