Outing the Marlboro Man

Document reveals new details on how tobacco companies target gays

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."

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