Lincoln Mondy grew up in a mixed race family in Texas, where his white mother’s family used regular tobacco, unlike his Black father.
“My dad exclusively smokes menthol cigarettes,” he says. “Menthol was such a part of Black culture. And I knew that Black people smoked menthol and that was just a fact.”
The 29-year-old filmmaker turned his curiosity about race and menthol tobacco into a documentary on the topic he produced for the Truth Initiative, an anti-smoking advocacy group.
He then realized how menthol’s popularity with the Black community came from decades of racially targeted marketing, including ads (such as the Kent Menthol ad shown above) depicting Black models in Black magazines like Ebony, and cultural events in Black neighborhoods — like the KOOL Jazz festival, sponsored by the menthol brand. “They really created menthol as a Black product,” Mondy says.
Now, as a proposed ban on menthol remains in limbo since the Biden administration put it on hold in December, lobbying and debate continues about how the ban would impact Black smokers.
Not only is the minty, cooling flavored tobacco most heavily marketed and consumed in Black communities in the US, where over 80% of smokers use menthol, it is a big reason Black men face the highest rate of lung cancer, says Phillip Gardiner, a public health activist and co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council. Latino and LGBTQ communities as well as women were also targeted, he says.
The minty, cooling flavor of menthol masks the smoke and soothes the throat, making it easier to inhale deeply. “The more deeply you inhale, the more nicotine and toxins you take and the more addicted you become,” and the more lethal the product, Gardiner says.
That history is why efforts to ban menthol cigarettes and cigars have always been entwined with race. Menthol has become a flashpoint of controversy, dividing Black leaders and their communities.
The Food and Drug Administration was set to enact a long-awaited ban on menthol cigarettes and cigars last August. The rule detailing the ban has already been written but needed to be approved by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget before it could be finalized. The White House since delayed it until March, and agreed to hold meetings with groups opposed to the rule. This angered activists like Gardiner.
“It’s ridiculous; thousands of lives are being lost because of the inactivity of the FDA and now the White House,” he says. Gardiner says the delays are the result of the industry wielding its financial influence within the Black community.
Late last year, tobacco giant Altria recently sponsored a poll finding a menthol ban would sway more Black voters against President Biden. Details of that poll have not been released, and NAACP CEO Derrick Johnson refutes its findings, saying in a video statement, “we’re the largest civil rights organization in the Black community in 47 states across the country; no one has raised this as a political issue.”
Source: NPR News.