June is Pride Month—a time to celebrate the progress, recognize the accomplishments and commemorate the struggles of the LGBTQ community. Alongside the rallies, parades and—especially during COVID-19—online events and personal displays of pride, messages of empowerment flood the media.
And the tobacco industry, with its history of intentionally targeting the LGTBQ community, is working hard to capitalize on the moment.
This Pride Month, tobacco companies including British American Tobacco (BAT), Japan Tobacco International (JTI) and Philip Morris International (PMI) used social media to tweet messages of support for their LGBTQ employees and colleagues. But to the tobacco industry, it seems the greater LGBTQ community is just another customer segment—another group it targets with its addictive products.
The tobacco industry has a history of marketing toward marginalized groups, including Black people, women and LGBTQ people. Examples of the industry’s efforts to reach a mass LGBTQ audience began appearing in the 1990s, including a German cigarette company, Reemstma, featuring a gay marriage celebration in an ad for their New West cigarettes, and Philip Morris buying ad space in the popular U.S. magazine, Genre.
The tobacco industry’s internal attitudes toward the LGBTQ community didn’t always match the positivity of its external messaging. As the Truth Initiative highlights, a mid-1990s marketing plan by R.J. Reynolds to target gay men and homeless people in the U.S. was called “Project SCUM.” A PMI document shows it also saw the LGBTQ population simply as a market with plenty of “growth potential.”
Tobacco companies continue their efforts to hook the LGBTQ community on tobacco. In the U.S., Lucky Strike advertised—in the style of a PSA—in the program of the 2001 Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Media Awards, and in 2011 Camel ads aligned messages of Pride with its flavored snus products.
The LGBTQ community remains a target for tobacco companies’ new products, too. After the launch of IQOS, PMI’s heated tobacco product, in the U.K., the company sponsored the health section of the Gay Star News and hosted a Pride afterparty which it advertised at IQOS shops in London.
Actions have consequences. Researchers have noted that in many countries, LGBTQ adults have higher odds of using tobacco than non-LGBTQ adults. While several theories exist as to why tobacco use is higher in some LGBTQ populations, the impact of targeted marketing cannot be ruled out. Renewed efforts around the industry’s new products could skew the stats higher for those products, as well.
So LGBTQ buyer beware. The tobacco industry adorns its social media accounts with rainbow colors to portray itself as a good partner to the LGBTQ community, but the reality is that its motives are addiction and profit, not pride.