Tobacco companies left a uniquely detrimental mark on Black communities: the widespread availability of cigarettes containing menthol, which the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) links to addiction. “Black Lives/Black Lungs,” a new short documentary supported by the anti-big tobacco Truth Initiative, unmasks how these companies selectively market to Black consumers and collect political influence.
“Understanding the history of this 50-year-plus campaign is critical for taking back the health of our community,” filmmaker Lincoln Mondy says in the intro to “Black Lives/Black Lungs.” Mondy, a former Truth Initiative intern, elaborated on the theme of tobacco companies’ half-decade infiltration of Black neighborhoods in a statement to Colorlines:
Nearly nine in ten African-American smokers use menthol cigarettes. That’s no coincidence. The tobacco industry targets everyone, but their targeting of the Black community has been uniquely damaging. They’ve strategically built up ties with Black politicians, leaders and organizations in order to use them whenever there’s a proposed menthol ban on the table. When I first began reading all of the industry documents and evidence that spelled out how menthol was strategically ingrained into Black culture, I was angry. I was angry about how much the tobacco industry had negatively impacted my community—but also angry that I hadn’t known about it before.
The ties Mondy references include tobacco conglomerate Altria Group’s $1 million donation to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, $100,000+ contribution to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and support of numerous Black U.S. representatives—all of which Mondy argues influences a political climate that keeps menthol cigarettes out of anti-tobacco legislative efforts like the 2009 Tobacco Control Act.
The film’s subject remains relevant not just because of an upcoming FDA nicotine regulation plan, which will include research on menthol, but also because of smoking’s ongoing impact on the collective health of Black communities. A 2014 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study notes that African Americans are more susceptible to second-hand smoke exposure and smoking-related diseases than other demographic groups. It also reports that tobacco companies place more ads in Black neighborhoods and publications than White ones, with the vast majority promoting menthol-flavored products.
Watch “Black Lives/Black Lungs” above and learn more about the film on its website.