When Lincoln Mondy learned of the tobacco industry’s strategy to target African Americans, he took action—and took up a camera. His documentary cuts through the marketing smokescreen.
By John DiConsiglio
Growing up in a small Texas town, political science major Lincoln Mondy could name the colors on a Newport cigarette pack the way most kids can describe the jerseys of their favorite sports teams. Both of his parents were heavy smokers. His father, who is African American, was hooked on the menthol-flavored Newports that seemed to be advertised on every billboard and bus in his neighborhood.
“If an adult asked me to describe what the Empire State Building looked like, I don’t think I could have done it,” Mondy recalled. “But if they asked me to describe a pack of Newports, I’m confident that I could articulate that green, white and gold packaging with ease.”
In Mondy’s hometown, “tobacco was everywhere,” he said. If not for a childhood bout with asthma, he believes he certainly would have taken up the habit. But it wasn’t until he came to GW and earned a youth fellowship with the anti-tobacco nonprofit Truth Initiative that Mondy realized his father’s affinity for menthol cigarette brands like Newports and Kools wasn’t a coincidence. Nearly 90 percent of African American smokers prefer menthol, a flavoring additive that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), increases nicotine addiction. Only 26 percent of white smokers use menthols.
Mondy, who is biracial, asked himself why such stark contrasts appeared in smoking statistics—and inside his own house. “My black family all smoked menthol and they could never quit,” he noted. “My white side dipped and smoked cigarettes that weren’t menthol.” His mother, who is half white, stopped smoking after a then 14-year-old Mondy created a PowerPoint presentation detailing tobacco’s deadly effects. But despite his father’s numerous attempts to quit menthols, Mondy watched him return to the green, white and gold packs again and again.
Through his fellowship at Truth Initiative, Mondy plunged into intensive tobacco research, digging through an archive of 14 million industry documents dating back to the 1960s. He learned of a 50-year campaign by big tobacco companies to saturate black communities with menthols, employing tactics like focused advertising in African American publications and “ethnic field trips” in black neighborhoods to distribute cartons of free cigarettes. “When I found out how tobacco companies infiltrated black culture to push menthol cigarettes, I was frustrated, I was mad and I was shocked that I knew nothing about this,” he said. “I couldn’t stay silent.”
Mondy launched a film project titled Black Lives/Black Lungs, a short documentary depicting young African Americans, including GW students, reading excerpts from tobacco industry documents outlining strategic plans to promote menthol cigarettes among black smokers. In the film, the stunned and sometimes teary-eyed students struggle to repeat descriptions of tobacco target audience as “ghetto smokers” who are “poorly educated” and come from “lower incomes.” Occasionally the students relate their own personal stories—tales of grandparents who chain-smoked even as they were dying of lung cancer. The finished film, which will debut later this summer, will include historical footage and interviews with anti-tobacco activists.
“Tobacco is usually framed as a public health issue, which of course it is. But I wanted to look at it as a social justice issue too,” Mondy said. “My generation is very motivated on social justice issues. Look at the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement. This is a way of saying that not only do black lives matter, but black lungs matter too.”
Cigarette smoking has struck a particularly devastating blow to the African American population. Death rates from lung cancer and other smoking-related diseases are generally higher among blacks than whites. The CDC reports that smoking-related illnesses kill more black Americans than AIDS, car crashes, murder and drug and alcohol abuse combined. Not only have research studies shown that the menthol cigarettes overwhelmingly smoked by African Americans are more addictive than non-menthols, but the additive is also thought to make harmful chemicals more easily absorbed into the body.
When preparing his film, Mondy searched the Truth Initiative archives for keywords like “ethnic,” “ghetto” and “negro,” finding reams of reports on strategies to target black people. The industry marketed menthol as a “healthier” cigarette option with a “minty” taste to mask tobacco’s harshness—a tactic Mondy called “shameful.” Tobacco companies bought disproportionate ad space in black publications like Ebony and Jet, often picturing black athletes and performers in care-free poses. While a 2009 law banned tobacco flavor additives like cherry and bubblegum, menthol is still readily available. Meanwhile, a survey by the Tobacco Control Legal Consortium found that nearly half of all black smokers said they would quit cigarettes if menthol was banned.
“They researched our culture and pinpointed what [black] people like,” Mondy said. “Then they swooped in, got as many of us addicted as they could and ran away. They still haven’t taken any responsibility.”
Making an Impact
Although Mondy said he had never picked up a camera before, he chose to make a film as a way to relate to his generation’s connection with visual storytelling. “I wanted to do something impactful that would get people my age to pay attention,” he said. “We don’t respond to scare tactics. But videos can be a powerful way to reach us.” With SMPA senior Amina Akhtar as his producer, Mondy recruited fellow concerned African American students from GW and Howard University.
Even before his film is completed, Mondy’s work has drawn attention. He was the subject of a profile in The Huffington Post and has been invited to preview Black Lives/Black Lungs for the Tobacco Prevention Network and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The documentary was accepted as part of the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer. Mondy is also arranging screenings at historically black colleges and universities and other D.C. venues.
“This isn’t about pointing fingers at people or assigning blame,” he said. “I want to reignite the conversation through storytelling and mobilize the community to seek cessation services. If I do anything to help decrease the number of smokers then I've done good work."