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Behind the Spot
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Big Tobacco’s Actions Speak
Lincoln Mondy never planned on creating a documentary that would highlight the tobacco industry’s decades-long campaign to target Black communities with the sale of menthol. But once he began diving into Big Tobacco’s library of internal documents, he was ignited by what he found.
“I was really, really angry,” remembers Mondy. “I don’t really have another way to put it. I was just so mad that this was information that I didn’t know about.”
Between increasing menthol advertising in Black neighborhoods (including handing out free cigarettes), discounting menthols at convenience stores in Black communities, placing ads in Black publications like Ebony and Jet, showing up at Black music festivals and events, and fostering close relationships with Black civil rights organizations, Big Tobacco’s extensive history of recruiting Black smokers speaks for itself.
“The biggest thing that I found to be really glaring in my first stint of researching was definitely the ‘ethnic field trips,’” said Mondy. Of course, he’s speaking about an old marketing tactic of Big Tobacco’s, where execs visited Black neighborhoods in order to study the culture, community, and buying habits of Black people. While audience research as a practice may not seem all that insidious, it takes on a different hue when the product being marketed is both deadly and addictive.
“In my mind it’s this board room of a lot of -- at the time, and probably still -- white men, deciding how to regurgitate all of this culture and these lessons back to the public just to sell products that they know for a fact can kill you,” said Mondy. With menthol use rates remaining disproportionately high among Black Americans, he knew he needed to help bring this history of exploitation back to the surface.
Enter: “Black Lives / Black Lungs,” a short film exploring and detailing all fifty years of Big Tobacco’s predatory tactics. While working on the documentary, Mondy sought wisdom and research from leading tobacco control researchers like Dr. Phillip Gardiner, Dr. Valerie Yerger, and Carol McGruder. He also leaned heavily on the tobacco industry’s own words, which can be read in detail within their internal documents -- all of which are accessible online.
At the heart of the documentary, however, is a call for viewers to understand and empathize with the impact that this industry has had on Black Americans.
“I saw it as an opportunity because I was someone who was not a researcher or a scientist, I was a creative and someone who really, really loved storytelling,” said Mondy. “I knew my audience [of young people] really appreciated the facts and that, of course, we want the evidence. But at the same time, we’re also really enamored by hearing people’s personal experiences.”
Since releasing the documentary in 2017, Mondy has continued to monitor the changing landscape of nicotine and tobacco control -- in particular, the resurgence of old marketing tactics in the vaping and e-cigarette space.
“What I’ve been seeing over the past three years since I released the film is that Big Tobacco is just pivoting,” said Mondy. “They’re just dusting off their playbook, and putting all of their energy and all of these tactics that we’ve been seeing for decades right into e-cigarettes and vaping.”
He’s not wrong. In 2018, Altria -- which is one of the biggest tobacco companies in the world -- purchased a 35% stake in JUUL. Soon after, a former Big Tobacco exec was installed as the new CEO of JUUL. And just one year later, JUUL hired several notable Black leaders as consultants and lobbyists -- including Benjamin Jealous, the former head of the NAACP; Heather Foster, a former adviser to President Obama; and Chaka Burgess, who serves on the board of the NAACP and CBCF.
“In my film, we document the relationship between Big Tobacco companies and Black institutions,” said Mondy, noting the long history of tobacco companies making high dollar donations to Black organizations. “I would say it’s a little more under the rug, but it’s the same exact tactic that we’re seeing.”
Last year, JUUL made a $7.5 million donation to Meharry Medical College, an HBCU in Nashville, Tennessee. It was the second-largest grant the school had ever received in its history, and, like many medical schools, Meharry had a policy of turning down donations from tobacco companies. Despite JUUL being partially owned by a tobacco giant, the donation was technically not against this policy.
“I want to start a conversation about the value of Black people and whether or not we are okay with selling our entities, our community, our culture to Big Tobacco. And what are we getting in return?” said Mondy. “The big thing we’re getting is death and disease.”
When asked what the future looked like for holding tobacco and vape companies accountable, Mondy answered plainly: “It’s young people. And it’s Black-led organizations.”
He referenced the Black student leaders at Meharry, who vehemently protested the donation and vowed to maintain their ethics despite any pressure from JUUL. He also spoke of young people in San Francisco, who wrote to their councilmembers to support a ban on menthol.
“I think the future is community members speaking up and speaking out for the health of their own community,” said Mondy. “It’s also not trying to silo all these issues… when we’re talking about health, we know that a person’s health is impacted also by police brutality. A person’s health is impacted by their race. A person’s health is impacted by their citizenship status. A person’s health is impacted by their zip code.”
Big Tobacco’s targeted infiltration of Black communities is no secret, it’s no coincidence, and it’s just one part of a long history of systemic racism that continues to put the health of Black people at risk. And while it’s important to call out their tactics and hold them accountable, we have to protect the health of vulnerable communities holistically.
“I think it’s important that whenever we see institutions causing harm to any community; whether it’s, you know, the Black community, the disabled community, the LGBTQ community -- which I’m proud to be a part of as well -- we really have to call them out,” said Mondy.
Let’s take Mondy’s lead and keep holding them accountable. Read between the lies.