Filmmaker Lincoln Mondy noticed something peculiar as a child, years before he understood it.
“I grew up with a white mother and a black father,” he said. “I noticed that my mom’s family seemed to smoke nonmenthols or use chewing tobacco – chewing tobacco was big, especially in rural areas – but my black family, they seemed to exclusively smoke menthols.”
Mondy assumed the respective preferences were coincidental until he earned an internship with the Truth Initiative, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit dedicated to ending tobacco use.
“I started reading the data and really looking at the studies,” he said. “They showed that it wasn’t a coincidence.”
Mondy will be at the Morning Star Baptist Church on Monday for a showing of his award-winning short film, “Black Lives/Black Lungs.” The film investigates how the tobacco industry turned menthol cigarettes into a staple of African-American culture.
A 2013 report from the Centers for Disease Control revealed that 88.5 percent of African-American smokers age 12 or older preferred menthol cigarettes. “(That is) compared to 29 percent of white smokers,” Mondy said.
According to the CDC, the tobacco industry has been targeting black consumers since the 1950s.
“They invested everything they had into the African-American community,” said Mondy. “(They) went all in on targeting.”
American commercials and magazine ads for nonmenthol tobacco products usually featured white actors – like the Marlboro Man – but ads for menthol cigarettes invariably featured black actors.
“They were one of the first industries to have positive advertising (that included African-Americans),” Mondy said. “It wasn’t that all black people were drug dealers or criminals.
“But it was a double-edged sword,” he said.
The ads, ubiquitous in the African-American community, made smoking menthol cigarettes sound like a healthy experience.
“All the tobacco commercials for menthols, early on, said ‘fresher breath’ and ‘minty fresh’ and ‘cooling effect,’ ” Mondy said. “Menthol was strategically made so people who didn’t like the harshness of tobacco could still pick up cigarettes.”
The tobacco industry also courted African-Americans in government. According to Marvin Levin, in a 2015 analysis published in Mother Jones, tobacco companies were 19 times more likely to donate to black congressional members than those from other ethnic backgrounds. “It was all to get their name in the community,” Mondy said, “so (the community) would see them as friendly.”
The industry targeted the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, a nonprofit public policy research organization founded by African-American lawmakers in 1976.
“The tobacco industry started work with the CBCF early on,” Mondy said. “They sponsored different networking lunches, and they sponsored different scholarships.”
The current CEO of the CBCF, Shuanice Washington, was a vice president at Altria, a leading tobacco company, for 20 years. “She headed up the government affairs office at Altria … from there she went to the CBCF,” said Mondy. “It’s easy to see how that’s a conflict of interest.”
The 2009 Family Use and Tobacco Smoking Act banned flavoring additives from cigarettes – with one exception. “In the initial stages of this bill, menthol was included,” Mondy said. “But when the bill was signed … menthol was not included.”
“Today, menthol is the only legal flavoring still on the market,” he said. “Through the tobacco industry’s influence, through their lobbying, they were successful in getting the menthol ban off the table.”
The screening of Mondy’s film is sponsored by Friends of the Black Lens, the Alliance for Media Arts + Culture and the Spokane Regional Health District.
“I’m really excited to come to Spokane and work with … the different organizations,” he said. “Three different entities coming together from their own audiences for one main event, I think, is critical. It marries these three different areas together, to produce a vibrant and engaging conversation.”
“I want people to start discussing the role of menthol in black culture and realizing that it has a huge impact still on our community.
“And that it wasn’t a coincidence,” he said.
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