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While many US tobacco control budgets suffer cuts as scarce prevention funds are shifted from tobacco to obesity and other serious health issues, health advocates have been striving to keep the pressure up, and maintain the American public’s awareness of just how serious the tobacco problem remains. If anything has served as reassurance recently that the worldwide tobacco pandemic will not drop away from the headlines, it was the record level of protests at the annual shareholders’ meetings of two of the world’s largest tobacco companies. A wide range of activities ensured that both bosses and shareholders of Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds American were left in no doubt at all about the tobacco epidemic, not only on home ground, but in developing countries and others all over the world.
Altria Group, the parent company of Kraft, Philip Morris USA and Philip Morris International, held its meeting at the end of April. More than 100 youth and adult advocates from the USA and around the world participated in advocacy events focused on the meeting. A youth advocacy training day was followed by a demonstration in front of Altria’s headquarters in New York the next day as the meeting convened. The demonstrators called on Altria/Philip Morris (PM) to “Give the World a Break” from tobacco advertising, lobbying on the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), bogus “youth smoking prevention” programmes, and their legal challenges to effective tobacco control legislation.
Twenty-five went inside the meeting to confront Altria chief executive Louis Camilleri about the company’s practices around the world. The rest, who had decided to make a silent protest, stood in a long line with their mouths taped shut to symbolise the millions of people killed—silenced—by tobacco around the world each year. Every seven seconds, one would kneel to the ground to represent another person killed by tobacco. A small group tried to deliver a bunch of satirical “Happy 50th Birthday Marlboro” cards collected by Americans for Nonsmokers Rights from young people around the country, but this was prevented by a New York City police detective. By the end of the demonstration, a total of 67 police cars had surrounded the area. One officer told demonstrators it was a routine weekly drill. Another, seen to be on friendly terms with Altria security guards, said it was “a show of force against terrorism”.
The young advocates inside the meeting challenged Camilleri to make the company cease its bad practices; unsurprisingly, he refused. But when challenged about PM’s use of the Maori name in its Maori Mix cigarette brand, he apologised.
If that was humiliation PM-style, then the people at RJ Reynolds American (RJR) had done some of theirs in advance. Following the success of tobacco control advocates at last year’s meeting, when respirator-wielding Anne Morrow Donley, a Virginia shareholder and health activist, got the meeting made smoke-free (see Tobacco Control 2005;14:222–3), shareholders arriving at this year’s event in Winston-Salem found a pastel blue and white sign already in place at the registration desk stating that this would be “a non-smoking meeting”. True, smoking was permitted in the hallways and stairways outside the auditorium, but for the second year running, local media made no mention of the historic “atmosphere”. Asked by Ms Donley whether he had noticed the sign at the registration desk, a photographer from the Winston-Salem Journal said he had not, and when she took him to see it, he smiled and said, “Very interesting,” but took no photograph, and the report once again failed to mention the highly unusual occurrence at the annual meeting of one of the country’s biggest tobacco companies. Other activists present included Father Michael Crosby, and nurses from the Nightingales group. An interesting addition to last year’s meeting was a group of RJ Reynolds workers protesting outside and inside the meeting, pressing to form a labour union.