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‘Black Lives/Black Lungs’ documentary reveals deadly impact of targeted menthol cigarette advertising

UPDATED: Mon., Nov. 6, 2017, 10:56 p.m.

Lincoln Mondy, center, and Sandy Williams, left, lead a discussion after a viewing of Mondy’s documentary, “Black Lives/Black Lungs” on Monday at Morning Star Baptist Church in Spokane. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Lincoln Mondy, center, and Sandy Williams, left, lead a discussion after a viewing of Mondy’s documentary, “Black Lives/Black Lungs” on Monday at Morning Star Baptist Church in Spokane. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Health officials and community activists gathered Monday evening at Spokane’s Morning Star Baptist Church for a talk with filmmaker Lincoln Mondy and a screening of his short documentary, “Black Lives/Black Lungs.”

The 15-minute video, which investigates how big tobacco companies targeted black communities in menthol cigarette advertisements, is Mondy’s first foray into filmmaking and has captured some national attention.

The 23-year-old said he spent many nights and weekends conducting research and interviews with public health experts while he was a college student in Washington, D.C.

“This issue is really personal for me,” said Mondy, who grew up in Dallas with a white mother and a black father.

As a child, he noticed that his mother’s side of the family used mostly chewing tobacco or regular cigarettes. “But my black family used to smoke exclusively menthol cigarettes,” he said.

It wasn’t until he landed an internship with the Truth Initiative, a D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to ending tobacco use, that Mondy discovered his family’s smoking preferences were not coincidental. And he decided to spread the word.

Mondy dug through industry records that have been made public through litigation, and interviewed health experts including Dr. Phillip Gardiner, who studies tobacco-related diseases at the University of California. The film explains that, beginning in the 1950s, tobacco companies sought to turn menthol cigarettes into a staple of African American culture.

A 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly 9 in 10 African American smokers prefer menthols, compared to less than a third of white smokers.

For decades, American commercials and magazine ads for nonmenthol tobacco products usually featured white actors – like the Marlboro Man – but ads for menthol cigarettes almost invariably featured black actors. They also featured buzz phrases like “minty fresh” and “cooling effect,” seemingly implying that menthols are healthier than regular smokes (they are not).

“Menthol has been shown time and time again to be easier to pick up and harder to put down,” Mondy said, “because the menthol masks the harshness and makes it smoother.”

Cigarette manufacturers also have poured money into African American scholarships, election campaigns and civic groups, including the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. Mondy noted that the current chief executive of that foundation, Shaunice Washington, was a vice president at Altria, a leading tobacco company, for two decades.

“That just goes to show you how connected a lot of these organizations are with the industry,” Mondy said. “The tobacco industry strategically befriended this community when nobody else would.”

Sandy Williams, the editor and publisher of Spokane’s Black Lens newspaper, noted the irony. While the tobacco industry was among the first to feature black people in advertising and hire them for high executive ranks, the results were deadly: African Americans are more likely than whites to die from various tobacco-related diseases.

“They were promoting black people to the detriment of the black community,” Williams said.

Monday’s film screening was sponsored by Friends of the Black Lens, the Spokane Regional Health District and the Alliance for Media Arts and Culture.

“Black Lives/Black Lungs” can be viewed for free on YouTube or at BlackLivesBlackLungs.com. Mondy, who works for the public relations firm BerlinRosen in Washington, D.C., also promotes the film on Twitter, @LivesandLungs.