Big Tobacco Targeting the Homeless, Mentally Ill
> 2/22/2007 1:41:15 PM

In one of the more insidious examples of their never-ending search for new customers/addicts, tobacco firms have taken to sponsoring events in communities and institutions frequented by the homeless and the mentally ill. By focusing on a segment of the population already more susceptible to the dangers of addiction in organized publicity campaigns disguised as community service, Big Tobacco wins twice by scoring good press and selling more cigarettes in the process. In most cases, they even "donate" thousands of smoke "samples" to guarantee their presence in the local population. The industry has a long, well-documented history of tilting their marketing toward "downscale," or financially unstable, customers who are, in their own words: "...more impressionable...less formed intellectually...more malleable."

Though specific numbers are hard to come by, general surveys make these disturbing assertions: two-thirds of those dealing with serious mental illness experience homelessness at some point; approximately a third of the homeless population suffers from some form of mental illness; more than 75% of the homeless smoke cigarettes; and the cigarettes purchased by mentally ill individuals make up an astounding one-half of all American tobacco sales. How could Big Tobacco ignore such a huge consumer base? As mentioned in this excellent World of Psychology blog entry, tobacco companies have managed to score political points with homeless veterans' organizations while spending very little cash in the process by publicizing their small-scale contributions in local newspapers.

The surprisingly popular perception that cigarettes help the homeless, depressed, and schizophrenic deal with stress is misguided at best, as the idea of cigarettes as an acceptable form of relaxation has long been discredited. Still, many families and advocates refrain from insisting on smoke-free shelters and hospitals because they believe that quitting would be physically and mentally unbearable for residents. And Big Tobacco wins again. By shrouding their shameless sales pitches in the guise of positive activism, the industry succeeds in convincing thousands, if not millions, of citizens that they are really not so bad. A considerable number of shelters and soup kitchens have actually requested funding from tobacco companies, knowing that they can count on small sums as a reward for allowing the distribution of cigarettes at their facilities.

Some urban areas have responded to the issue by initiating public campaigns designed to curb smoking among homeless populations, and while some remain skeptical, theirs is a much-needed effort. While they are not always clean or healthy and generally don't make for the most desirable company, our society's most marginalised citizens often need the most help, and Big Tobacco's efforts to ensare them as regular customers must be met with organized counteraction.

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