“Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Big Tobacco has got to go.”
That’s what 50 Reality Check advocates from across New York State chanted outside as the top executive for tobacco giant Altria Group USA told its shareholders on Thursday May 18 that the company had “another outstanding year” in 2016.
“Our business fundamentals remain strong,” said Martin Barrington, president and chief executive officer of Altria, the parent company of top U.S. cigarette maker Philip Morris USA.
Reality Check advocates tell different story
They told it via blue and black balloons, posters and anti-tobacco chants along with peers from No Limits Nebraska.
Three of our Reality Check teens attended the shareholder meeting and questioned Barrington about the company’s marketing practices, its position on indoor smoking laws, and whether the minimum age for buying tobacco products should be raised to 21.
Barrington said the company supports minimum age laws but believes the debate should be a national one, rather than having “a patchwork” of local rules.
Barrington also said Altria is balancing its strategy between supporting its core business of conventional tobacco products while investing in innovative new products such as electronic cigarettes.
Poised and confident youth activists
Reality Check coordinators and adult chaperones noted that the youth advocates from Reality Check and No Limits were prepared, poised and confident when speaking before the shareholders. CEO Barrington was even impressed with the depth of their questions, which were based on the tobacco-control issues and topics currently affecting New York State.
“Our goal, and the students’ hope, was to get more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response from Barrington this year,” said Jon Chaffee, Reality Check coordinator of Tobacco-Free Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany (CCA). “They work so hard on tobacco marketing audits and engaging our elected officials throughout the year so when they get a response from a CEO of a Big Tobacco giant, they know their voices and concerns are being heard.”
Making bigger impact
Reality Check advocate Hannah Plunkett from Niagara Falls, NY, taking a stand in Richmond for her second year in a row. was amazed to see her voice and activism make a difference. “I’ve learned I can make a bigger impact than I ever thought possible.”
TFWNY friend and colleague Ed Sweda, a tobacco control advocate and senior attorney for the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University in Boston was instrumental in driving the success. He met with the student advocates the day before their testimony, sharing his wisdom and experience on what goes on at a shareholder meeting and why they should attend and speak out.
Making money off a product that kills
The three-day bus caravan and rally to Richmond (beginning with a pre-dawn start and a midnight return) was a success. Chaffee measures the success by two things:
- Altria designated a different exit for departing the meeting, to avoid the student activists.
- As the students and I were leaving the meeting, he heard one shareholder ask an Altria staffer if “Next year we could use another entrance. Going through the crowd at the front door was no fun, if you know what I mean,”
To Chaffee, these two details show that the youth voice and message is being heard. And Altria leadership and shareholders don’t like the truth they are speaking.
“I’m not surprised,” Chaffee notes. “No one likes to be called out for making money off a product that kills people.”