Calls for institutional investors to divest (sell off) tobacco stocks threaten the industry’s share values, publicise its bad behaviour, and label it as a politically unacceptable ally. US tobacco control advocates began urging government investment and pension funds to divest as a matter of responsible social policy in 1990. Following the initiation of Medicaid recovery lawsuits in 1994, advocates highlighted the contradictions between state justice departments suing the industry, and state health departments expanding tobacco control programmes, while state treasurers invested in tobacco companies. Philip Morris (PM), the most exposed US company, led the divestment opposition, consistently framing the issue as one of responsible fiscal policy. It insisted that funds had to be managed for the exclusive interest of beneficiaries, not the public at large, and for high share returns above all. This paper uses tobacco industry documents to show how PM sought to frame both the rhetorical contents and the legal contexts of the divestment debate. While tobacco stock divestment was eventually limited to only seven (but highly visible) states, US advocates focused public attention on the issue in at least 18 others plus various local jurisdictions. This added to ongoing, effective campaigns to denormalise and delegitimise the tobacco industry, dividing it from key allies. Divestment as a delegitimisation tool could have both advantages and disadvantages as a tobacco control strategy in other countries.
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Competing interests: Both authors are employees of the University of California engaged in the study of the tobacco industry through its internal documents. The senior (second) author owns one share of Altria/Philip Morris stock for research and advocacy purposes.
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