By Dylan Deprey
Back in the 1920’s, Lloyd “Spud” Hughes was just a normal resident of Mingo Junction, OH. Little did he know that stashing his tobacco in the same tin as his cold relieving menthol crystals would inspire a new generation of tobacco products. Having lit up one of his menthol marinated cigarettes the next morning, he was surprised by the cooling rush of numbing smoke that saved his throat from the harshness of what was supposed to be a normal cigarette.
After patenting the minty mixture of menthol and tobacco, he created Spud Cigarettes. He sold his company a few years later to Louisville, Kentucky tobacco giant, the Axton- Fisher Tobacco Company.
While the invention of the menthol cigarette could be considered a fluke, Lincoln Mondy and his Black Lives/Black Lungs initiative showcase the deliberate marketing strategies of menthol cigarettes to generations of black people.
At 22-years-old, Mondy works in Washington D.C. and is a recent George Washington University graduate. He is also a youth activism fellow with the Truth Initiative. The Truth Initiative is dedicated to eradicate tobacco use by engaging and educating youth about the risks of smoking. They are also behind the flashy and trend-based anti-tobacco commercials that air between shows on stations like MTV and BET.
“Among all racial and ethnic groups in the United States, the Black community has carried the biggest burden from tobacco related diseases. Black Lives/Black Lungs explores how that came to be,” Mondy said.
Mondy is biracial and grew up in Farmersville, Texas, where tobacco was second nature. As a child with asthma, he witnessed his mother’s side of the family using chewing tobacco and normal cigarettes, while his father’s black side of the family smoked only menthol.
As an intern for the Truth Initiative, he read through hundreds of public record documents released through the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement.
The MSA was the result of the four biggest tobacco companies being sued and agreed to release marketing information as well as change marketing methods.
While digging through documents Mondy stumbled upon the 2002 Phillip Gardiner study, “The African Americanization of menthol cigarette use in the United States.”
Gardiner’s study focused on the history of menthol cigarettes, and Big Tobacco marketing them specifically to the black community.
From the ‘30s through the ‘50s mentholated cigarette brands like Kool, were primarily used when people had colds when their normal brand irritated their throat.
According to Gardiner, a Kool survey showed that 2 percent of whites preferred menthol versus the 5 percent of blacks. Although it was a three percent difference Mondy said that the menthol industry “doubled down.”
As African Americans moved to more urban environments, Mondy noted how companies would send marketing teams on “ethnic field trips” to study the culture and market directly back to the community it studied. Dark skinned models, Afros, cool jazz and slang were the thrown into the mix of marketing tactics.
This would later encourage Newport ads in hip-hop magazines and DJ’s plastered onto Kool packaging.
“It wasn’t a coincidence my entire black family smoked primarily and exclusively menthol,” Mondy said. “I was angry at my lack of awareness.”
ITG Brands recently bought menthol brands Salem and Kool from Reynolds American on June 15, 2015. In a statement with the Milwaukee Courier the third largest tobacco company said that they were not part of the long history of past marketing strategies.
“We do not target anyone or any group except the broad group of existing adult smokers, age 21 and older.”
While companies have to comply with stricter marketing laws, Mondy wants to spread what was already public knowledge to the community through a documentary set to be released later this year.
Tarvus Hawthorne of the Wisconsin African American Tobacco Prevention Network noted that there are racial discrepancies for smokers in Wisconsin. He said that 35 percent of African Americans smoke, compared to 19 percent of the general population.
“The Black Lives/ Black Lungs digital project is helping people understand why African Americans in Wisconsin and across the country not only smoke at higher rates but use menthol products more than other race groups as well,” Hawthorne said.