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Gay tobacco ads come out of the closet

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: (Published 31 July 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:296
  1. Gavin Yamey, deputy physician editor

    Smoking causes more deaths in America than AIDS, drug overdoses, suicide, homicide, and car crashes combined. Gay men are at particularly high risk of being killed by tobacco, as almost half ofgay men smoke (American Journal of Public Health 1999;89: 1875-8). How did the tobacco industry gain such a stranglehold over the gay community?

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    Nothing to celebrate: is the gay community “an area of opportunity” for tobacco giant Philip Morris?


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    The Altria advertisement in Pride03

    One theory points the finger at the industry's subtle campaign to court gay men. Since the early 1990s tobacco companies have quietly advertised cigarettes in gay media, contributed to gay organisations, and sponsored gay community events.

    These activities have given the tobacco industry legitimacy among gay men. Yet the industry hasbeen reluctant to publicly acknowledge its gay love affair.

    Two recent studies of internal industry documents show that Philip Morris, America's biggest tobacco seller, devised a strategy to target gay men while denying that such a strategy existed.

    In 1991 the company made large donations to AIDS related causes in response to the gay community's boycott of Marlboro cigarettes and Miller beer, two Philip Morris products. The boycott was a protest against Philip Morris's support of Senator Jesse Helms, an opponent of gay rights and AIDSfunding. As product sales began to fall, Philip Morris pledged money to AIDS organisations and theboycott was quickly dropped (Tobacco Control 2003;12: 203-7).

    Shortly after, the company donated $10 000 (£6166; €8696) to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Philip Morris was starting to gain acceptance within the gay community through its corporate philanthropy, and it turned this acceptance to its advantage.

    Its advertising agency advised the tobacco giant that the gay community was an “area of opportunity” and that the company could “own the market.” (American Journal of Public Health 2003;93: 988-93).Philip Morris therefore placed the first ever cigarette advert aimed at gay men in the October/November 1992 issue of Genre, a gay men's periodical.

    Genre had alerted the national media about the upcoming advert. The New York Post (14 August 1992) smirked: “Don't look now Marlboro Man—but you've got a brand-new gay partner.” Faced with this public attention, Philip Morris denied that it was targeting gay men and pointed out that it had also placed cigarette adverts in heterosexual magazines such as Playboy.

    Michael Wilke, founder of The Commercial Closet (, an organisation that monitors advertising aimed at the gay community, said that the tobacco industry “wanted it both ways—to reachthe gay audience but not garner too much attention outside of this arena.”

    Why was the industry so coy about acknowledging its ties with gay men? Elizabeth Smith, of the Malone Research Group at the University of California at San Francisco, which published the two studies of internal industry documents, said that the reluctance was because of “homophobia on the company's part—it didn't want to be associated with the gay community.”

    While the company clearly wanted the gay market, she said, it didn't want to weaken the macho image ofits chief product, Marlboro. It didn't want the wider community to think that the super-masculine Marlboro Man might be gay.

    Philip Morris's tactic of “closeted” gay marketing continues to this day. This year's San Francisco gay pride celebrations in June were commemorated with a magazine called Pride03. It carried a full page advert for Altria, Philip Morris's new name (the Malone Research Group says that the company changed its name “to hide the taint of tobacco”—see The advert surely aims to promote acceptance of Altria among a gay audience, yet the company says it is not trying to reach any specific group. Brendan McCormick, manager of media relations for PhilipMorris-USA, said: “Our audience is adult smokers and that audience is diverse.”

    Given the alarming rates of tobacco deaths among gay men, isn't it rather cynical for Altria tobe placing any adverts at all in the gay media? “Adult smokers,” said McCormick, “can make choicesabout the products they wish to purchase. We think that adult smokers should have access to information about our products.”

    Publishers of gay magazines that carry tobacco adverts use a similarargument to justify their position. “Many publishers,” said Michael Wilke, “would say that readers can make decisions on their own.” Some publishers have even hailed the adverts as a sign that gay men are no longer being excluded from society.

    But what kind of social inclusion is this? Being considered another potential target for a lethal product is hardly a great leap forward for gay rights. As one gay tobacco control activist commented, “This is a community already ravaged by addiction. We don't need the Marlboro Man to help pull the trigger” (American Journal of Public Health 2003;93: 988-93).

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