Youth offer “Reality Check” to Big Tobacco at Altria Annual Shareholders’ Meeting
Reality Check is a youth-led, adult-supported program based out of New York State that empowers youth to become leaders and fight against the tobacco industry through grassroots mobilization and education. Established in 2001, the group is funded by the New York State Department of Health, Bureau of Tobacco Control. Through Reality Check, youth have the opportunity to become leaders in their communities and educate their peers, family, community members, legislators, and decision-makers on the tobacco industry’s manipulative marketing practices and on youth tobacco use. Their efforts aim to decrease youth tobacco use, protect youth from exposure to tobacco marketing and imagery, and eliminate exposure to secondhand smoke.
Youth activists from various groups have been demonstrating at Big Tobacco company shareholder meetings, including at Philip Morris (now called Altria), Philip Morris International, Philip Morris USA, and Reynolds American for nearly two decades to hold these companies accountable for their actions and demand change. In the latest iteration of these demonstrations, Reality Check has worked with other youth groups such as No Limits from Nebraska, Dover Youth to Youth from New Hampshire, and Kick Butts Generation from Delaware each year since 2015 to plan and lead a rally outside of the annual Altria shareholders meeting in Richmond, VA.
Altria Group, Inc. is a Fortune 200 company and one of the world’s largest producers and marketers of tobacco products and other goods. Altria (formerly known as Philip Morris) owns several of the largest cigarette companies in the U.S., including Philip Morris USA, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company, John Middleton and Nat Sherman. The company’s tobacco brands include Marlboro, Copenhagen, Skoal, and Black & Mild. In 2018, Altria invested billions to own a stake in e-cigarette maker JUUL Labs. Altria also has interest in Helix Innovations, which manufactures and markets on!, an oral tobacco-derived nicotine pouch product.
In recent years, this event has drawn upwards of 150 youth from across the country.
What happens at the demonstrations
Prior to the event, the youth participate in trainings on topics including the tobacco industry’s targeting of youth, communities of color, and lower-income neighborhoods with point-of-sale tactics such as the selling of flavored tobacco products and highly visible tobacco advertising, as well as on advocacy and social justice. They hear from guest speakers and trainers from Counter Tools, Dover Youth to Youth, the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, the Public Health Advocacy Institute, and others.
During the demonstration, the group wields bright signs, uses props, and chants messages of protest to make their voices heard. For the entirety of the shareholders’ meeting, the youth can be seen mobilizing and chanting loudly for all to hear, including everyone in the meeting and on the street. The theme of “people over profits” rings loudly to counter the industry’s pursuit of profit over safeguarding lives. Youth have also focused on industry messaging and particular products the company has launched to craft their advocacy messages – for example calling out the company’s purchase of a 35% stake in Juul and the way the popular e-cigarette products are marketed to youth, saying “We will not be Fuuled” and playing on Altria’s introduction of Marlboro Ice cigarettes with a message that the company is “cold as ice.”
Reality Check and the other programs use Altria’s own strategy against them by buying shares in their stock. This allows a few of the youth to actually be able to attend the shareholder’s meeting, where they can confront the company’s executives and ask them questions directly. In the past, questions from youth have focused on corporate responsibility – responsibility to their customers as well as to the environment. Youth have also recently asked about the company’s practices around flavors, nicotine content, and disclosure of ingredients.
These ardent demonstrations have succeeded in getting the tobacco company’s attention. Not only can the group’s chants be heard during the meeting, the company knows the names of many of the event organizers and the youth participants, and the Altria marketing manager is now following them on Twitter.
In 2020, with the need to maintain health and physical distancing amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the group took their rally virtual with a “Mobilize Against Tobacco Lies Week of Engagement: Seven Deadly Lies” running from May 11th and culminating on May 17th, 2020, with NAATPN’s “No Menthol Sunday.” While this virtual aspect had not been in the group’s original plans, they do plan to make it a part of future demonstrations. They found that the virtual rally opened up participation for youth from all around the county who may not have been able to travel to Richmond to rally in person. Ultimately, the event grew to over 400 participants, expanding to include groups from Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Idaho, and many other states. This virtual event also meant that more youth got to listen in on the shareholder meeting and hear the shareholders respond to questions and vote down proposals from other groups that were also using their shares to attend the meeting and push for change, such as the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, the AFL-CIO, and Trinity Health.
Impact on Youth
The events not only send a message to Big Tobacco, but also further inspire youth to work towards change. As event organizer Jonathan Chaffee noted,
“We want the event to empower them so when they come back to their community, they are fired up to push for change, and when they get older and are not in Reality Check anymore, they take what they learned about policy change to make their communities a better place and to push for that change.”
Being able to come to the shareholders meeting also helps make the issues real for them. As many of the youth come from more rural communities, event organizer Dana Isabella said,
“It is important to show them that they are part of something way bigger than their schools district, their community, their region, or their state – they can be part of a movement that is outside of their physical location, and there is real power behind that. It opens up the world to them.” She added that it’s nice to see, “the power of a group of young people who have knowledge and passion and hope for change. It gives me hope, too.”
As one youth participant, Miranda Bickham, said of their experience in 2019,
“I attended the Altria Shareholder’s meeting and had the opportunity to ask the CEO of the company a question regarding the dangers of tobacco industries. During this meeting, I was completely shocked to see that the CEO of Altria not only completely ignored most of our questions, but to also preach about the importance of their new stock in JUUL afterwards. From going to this meeting, I learned more about the tobacco industry itself and many of the differences between what the company says versus what they actually do.”
Another youth participant, Lily Bouton, said,
“Attending the Altria trip was an amazing experience. I learned more in depth about how the tobacco industries are targeting youth and how the public is taking action to react against the tobacco industries’ goals. To be with such a large group of teens, all trying to reach the same goal is amazing. Being able to shout out our minds as one, outside of an annual shareholders meeting was so great because we got to express how we felt and we know we were making a difference, with only more to come.”
In 2021, the event organizers are hoping for a double whammy by continuing the virtual event and getting back out on the streets to rally in-person. In the past, the groups have taken advantage of the trip to Richmond to observe tobacco’s presence in an urban environment, for example by conducting store assessments, and they are hoping to incorporate additional activities in the future, like conducting a Scavenger Hunt for all the buildings across the city emblazoned with Altria’s name, or exercising their privilege as stakeholders to take a tour of Altria’s campus.
Want to get your youth group involved? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to become involved in the Altria Shareholder’s Meeting. All youth groups are welcome, whether their work has focused on tobacco in the past or not!