Our team was excited to participate again this year in Reality Check’s action and advocacy to combat the tobacco industry’s targeting of youth. This year a multi-week virtual event was held with training webinars, social media advocacy, and interactive activities geared towards youth culminating with the annual Altria shareholders meeting.
Reality Check is a youth-led movement in New York State that empowers youth to become leaders in their communities and expose the manipulative and deceptive marketing tactics of the tobacco industry like Altria. The organization’s youth members produce change in their communities through grassroots mobilization and education.
Altria is one of the world’s largest owners, producers, and marketers of tobacco products. Altria owns companies including “Philip Morris USA” who makes Marlboro cigarettes, “U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company” maker of Copenhagen and Skoal smokeless tobacco, “John Middleton” who manufactures Black & Mild cigars, “Helix Innovations” the maker of On! oral nicotine pouches, and has rights to heated tobacco product IQOS and an investment in “JUUL Labs” maker of the popular e-cigarette JUUL.
Each year Reality Check and partnering groups have met and mobilized in Richmond, Virginia at the annual Altria shareholders meeting held in May. In 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Reality Check switched to an online format for a virtual event week called “Mobilize Against Tobacco Lies” (MATL). This year Reality Check continued this virtual format under “Mobilize Against Tobacco Lies” by holding a multi-week event starting in April that included over 20 youth groups from a variety of locations. Such groups came from New York, Nebraska, Texas, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Arkansas, Kansas, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Hawaii.
Along with Reality Check, No Limits Nebraska and Dover Youth to Youth have been huge contributors in the planning of activities, participation of youth and delivery of training for this event the past 2 years; and this support in planning and execution has expanded this year to include the Hawaii Youth Council, Project Prevent Arkansas, and Kick Butts Generation Delaware. Counter Tools has also been a participating group and we have partnered with Reality Check since 2015 to help plan, participate in activities and train the youth leading up to the shareholders meeting.
The multi-week event this year included interactive virtual trainings, social media efforts like posting on Facebook, and activities such as a virtual youth get-together with games. We, at Counter Tools, led specific trainings on tobacco marketing and tobacco industry targeting. Other groups including the Truth Initiative, Dover Youth To Youth, Corporate Accountability and the Center for Black Health & Equity (formerly NAATPN) also provided trainings on different topics for the youth like social media advocacy. Efforts were organized around “Take Down Tobacco National Day of Action” on April 1st, “Earth Day” on April 22nd, “No Menthol Sunday” on May 16th and ended with the Altria shareholders meeting on May 20th. The overall goal of this “Mobilize Against Tobacco Lies” theme is to foster youth engagement and mobilize against Big Tobacco by telling the truths to counter their lies.
As part of the efforts, a few select youth were given shareholder proxy tickets to be able to address corporate tobacco executives like Altria CEO Billy Gifford and shareholders with questions during the shareholders meeting while other youth spoke out against the company on social media. Youth from Reality Check, No Limits Nebraska, Dover Youth to Youth, Hawaii Youth Council, Wisconsin Fact, and Kansas Resist were designated to ask questions. Per hearing the response from Billy Gifford to their questions during the meeting, two youth from Hawaii cited:
“It was beyond disappointing that CEO Gifford would throw the FDA under the bus, in an attempt to discredit CDC guidance and the decades-long science that clearly outlines the dangers of nicotine–especially for our youth.” – Theresa Ng
“It was disheartening to hear that Altria feels it’s better to focus on adult use rather than youth prevention.”- Chanel Matsumoto
Our team was excited to participate in the event this year and share our knowledge and energy with the youth advocates along with the other groups. There is only more that can be done in the coming years to fight an industry that is killing people. The hope is to come back in-person and bring this fight back to Richmond, Virginia to look Altria in the eye and rally on the streets to show them youth don’t play and are not about their lies!