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To make the public in general and tobacco shareholders in particular aware of the true character of tobacco companies is an important part of a comprehensive tobacco control strategy. In May 1997, shareholders attending the annual general meeting of the Swedish Match company were presented with an alternative company report—the Reality check. The idea was inspired by the Tobacco company alternative report published by the Australian Council on Smoking and Health in 1987.
Swedish Match used to be a respected company producing and selling matches worldwide. Today Swedish Match holds 80% of the cigarette market in Sweden. Its biggest shareholders are banks, insurance companies, and pension funds. Its annual report for 1996 contains the usual figures on production, sales, profits, a generous dividend, as well as promises of expanding markets in eastern Europe and Asia.
Doctors and nurses dressed in white coats and others handed outReality check to all those attending the 1997 annual shareholders’ meeting. This alternative report contained other figures, such as the fact that 5700 people died from Swedish-made cigarettes in 1996, and public health comments on citations from the company report. For instance, “‘Many of the Group’s markets are mature . . .. New and expanding markets in eastern Europe and Asia are our next priority’ caused us to comment: ‘These markets are also mature—with respect to smoking among men, that is. So what is new and expanding? What can generate growth? Smoking among women and children, of course.’”
Our report also identified the company’s biggest shareholders and their dividends for 1996. It concluded by encouraging shareholders to reconsider their investment from an ethical perspective. “Swedish Match has an extremely generous dividend policy. Now you know why.”
We wrote an opinion piece for a major newspaper preceding the event, and statements were made by two of us at the shareholders’ meeting. Press coverage was excellent including all television channels, radio, and major newspapers.
Within three weeks following the event, two major insurance companies, Trygg-Hansa and Skandia, announced the sale of their shares—for ethical reasons. Follow-up letters and the Reality check have been sent to board members of other major shareholders. We have indications that discussions are now taking place in more board rooms. Finally we have also made use of the alternative report in attempts to influence various organisations not to involve themselves in sponsorship with Swedish Match: “You don’t want to be in bad company!”
We conclude that Reality check has served its purpose very well: to make shareholders aware of the true character of the company and what it stands for. The debate on ethical ownership has come to stay.
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