8.12 The tobacco industry and Indigenous communities

Last updated: August 2016 
Suggested citation: van der Sterren, A, Greenhalgh, EM, Knoche, D, & Winstanley, MH 8.12 The tobacco industry and Indigenous communities. In Scollo, MM and Winstanley, MH [editors].Tobacco in Australia: Facts and issues. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria; 2016. Available from http://www.tobaccoinaustralia.org.au/chapter-8-aptsi/8-12-the-tobacco-industry-and-indigenous-communiti

Given the strong consumer base they provide, it is not surprising that Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders have been targeted by tobacco industry marketing practices, along with other vulnerable and disadvantaged populations. A former tobacco model recounted during a court case against a tobacco company what he was told by a tobacco company executive: ‘We don’t smoke the shit. We just sell it. We reserve the right to smoke for the young, the poor, the black, and the stupid’ (p 26).1 

With direct tobacco advertising in Australia now being a thing of the past, tobacco companies have found other ways to promote goodwill towards themselves and their products among Indigenous communities. One company supported an Indigenous football team by donating a percentage of every dollar spent on a particular brand towards buying football guernseys for the team.2 In 2001, Philip Morris Australia provided funds to the Victorian Aboriginal Education Association Incorporated for the development of materials about substance use.3 Sponsorships of this nature could provide the impression that tobacco itself is not a cause for concern compared with other drug misuse, and might also influence the willingness of communities to take up and support tobacco-control initiatives.

There is anecdotal evidence that the close connection for many rural Indigenous people with cattle farming has made the Philip Morris brand Marlboro, with its iconic symbol of the smoking cowboy, a popular brand choice.2,4 Winfield, manufactured by British American Tobacco (formerly Rothmans), has also long been associated with the iconic working man through its launch using popular actor Paul Hogan in the 1970s. Winfield has also been a leading brand used among Indigenous people;2 in the APYi lands in Central Australia in 2007, 90% of the market share was held by Winfield (compared to 31.7% in the national market).5

The tobacco industry has also at times used offensive promotional materials, or misused Indigenous imagery, to promote its products. In 1984, an elected Aboriginal organisation (the National Aboriginal Conference; NAC) alleged that an advertisement for John Player Special cigarettes (owned at that time by WD & HO Wills) was racist. The advertisement included a picture of the black cigarette pack with the words “Get your own black”, which alluded to owning black servants. NAC were successful in its claim against the company, which was forced to withdraw the advertisement.6,7 Rothmans used the image of an Australian Indigenous man playing the didgeridoo in an advertisement for its Winfield brand, launched in Germany in 1998.8 One billboard depicted an Aboriginal man playing a didgeridoo with the slogan “Australians’ answer to the peace pipe”. Rothmans justified the advertisements by claiming that Winfield was itself an iconic Australian brand, while Aboriginal spokespeople from the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation and the Australian Medical Association described the images as demeaning misrepresentations.6 In 2005 Philip Morris launched a brand in Israel called Maori Mix, which incorporated ‘quasi-Māori’ emblems and a map of New Zealand on the packaging.9 The exploitation of Australian and New Zealander Indigenous peoples, among whom tobacco is a leading cause of death and disease, attracted immediate criticism.8,9 The Māori people received an apology.9 

In New Zealand, resistance to exploitation by the tobacco industry is part of the messages delivered by Māori anti-tobacco advocates. Underpinning a series of campaigns—entitled ‘Māori Killers’, ‘Endangered Species’ and ‘Māori Murder’—is the idea that the tobacco industry profits from Māori tobacco-related illness and death, and tobacco is a ‘barrier to Māoridom fulfilling its full potential’.10 This approach has not been widely used by Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia.

 i Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara


1. Deposition of David Goerlitz for 'the state of Oklahoma et al, plaintiffs vs. RJ Reynolds et al, defendents. GOERLITZD110998.Cleaveland, Oklahoma: District Court for Cleveland County, 1998. Available from: http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/ufr07a00/pdf .

2. Brady M. Historical and cultural roots of tobacco use among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 2002; 26(2):116–20. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12054329

3. Metherell M. Smoke giant offers lesson for schools. Sydney Morning Herald, 2002; 21 Sep. Available from: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2002/09/20/1032054962835.html

4. Roche A and Ober C. Rethinking smoking among Aboriginal Australians: The harm minimisation−abstinence conundrum. Health Promotion Journal of Australia, 1997; 7(2):128–33. Available from: http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=460464653536793;res=IELHEA

5. Butler R, Chapman S, Thomas DP, and Torzillo P. Low daily smoking estimates derived from sales monitored tobacco use in six remote predominantly Aboriginal communities. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 2010; 34(suppl. 1):S71–5. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1753-6405.2010.00557.x

6. Thomas DP and Bond L. The tobacco industry and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Medical Journal of Australia, 2012; 197(1):24. Available from: http://espace.cdu.edu.au/eserv/cdu:38037/Thomas_38037.pdf

7. BATCo additional supplementary press cuttings: index. British American tobacco. Bates no. 105651923. 14 Aug 1984. Available from: https://industrydocuments.library.ucsf.edu/tobacco/docs/#id=gshc0210

8. Chapman S. The ugly Australian from Rothmans, in Germany. Tobacco Control, 1999; 8:362. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1759737/pdf/v008p00362a.pdf

9. Maori mix cigarettes in Israel ignites row. New Zealand Herald, 2005; 13 Dec. Available from: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10359703

10. Te Reo Mārama. Kaupapa Tupeka Kore – tobacco free. Homepage. 2011. Available from: http://www.tereomarama.co.nz/Site/default.aspx

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