Altria Group Inc.

Until 1954, when Scientists Cuyler Hammond and Daniel Horn discovered a cause-and-effect relationship between lung cancer and smoking, the general public was largely unaware of the negative effects of smoking (Mendes). As such, smoking was a societal norm for most of the 20th century, with “around half of the population of industrialized nations [smoking]” (Rodrigues) in the late 1950s. Taking advantage of its widespread popularity, Big Tobacco not only marketed its products to adults, but also to children. Ad campaigns such as the Smooth Joe ads, advertising the Camel brand of cigarettes, were targeted to “children and young adolescents” (Burns, etl). This advertising was deemed so harmful that even the United States Department of Justice sued “several major tobacco companies” for “[targeting] the youth” (Eubanks).
Fortunately, in today’s society, the problem of smoking has largely been alleviated with smoking rates declining since 1959 (Burns, etl). Whilst this harmful vice is meeting its slow end, in its demise, vaping has taken place. Vaping refers to the inhaling of “vapor created by an electronic cigarette”. While electronic cigarettes (e-cigs) have fashioned themselves as a healthier alternative to smoking, in reality, vaping is extremely harmful with it having been linked to “serious lung damage and even death” (Gordan).
Adding insult to injury, cigarette companies such as the Altria Group Inc., the parent company to Malbrough Cigarette, have managed to adapt to the current marketplace, becoming major stakeholders in the vaping industry themselves. With its acquisition of 35% of Juul Labs Inc., the largest vaping company in the world, Altria has become the largest shareholder of Juul. With this acquisition, Altria has managed to control Juul from the background with Altria’s own Chief Growth Officer, K.C Crosthwaite, being placed as Juul’s CEO. Altria’s domination over Juul’s operations has led to the continuation of unethical practices by Big Tobacco with Altria bringing back old strategies, such as marketing to children, to Juul. For example, Juul has purchased ad space on several child-focused websites such as “Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network, Seventeen magazine and educational sites for middle school and high school students” (Kaplan). Furthermore, Juul has also created fruit and candy-flavored e-cigarette flavors as these flavors were perceived as being less dangerous by the youth (British Medical Association).
By not only buying up ad space on platforms where children commonly frequent but also by creating vaping flavors that appeal to and seem safer for teenagers to use, it is clear that Juul and its parent company, Altria, are marketing their product towards the youth population. As a result of this strategy, roughly 20% of high school students are reported to have vaped in the United States according to the Partnership to End Addiction. In 2018, the National Institute of Health also reported that 37.3 percent of 12th graders reported having used a vaping product in the past 12 months, compared to just 27.8 percent in 2017.

While it may be too hard to hold Juul and Atria legally accountable for their harmful marketing strategies and product, it is possible to spread awareness of their unethical business practices. Young students should not only be made aware of the extent to which vaping can harm them but also of how they have been lied to by Juul and Altria as e-cigarette flavors such as fruit or candy are dangerous despite the safe allure of these flavors. By spreading awareness of their unethical business practices, it may be possible to live in a future where children are no longer taken advantage of by vaping companies.
However, the most effective strategy to effect real change is to change the corporate governing structure of Altria. Recently, Engine No. 1, an investment firm creating long-term value and driving positive impact through active ownership, was able to impact real change in the energy company ExxonMobil, a company notorious for its disregard of the environment, by winning three seats on ExxonMobil’s board. They were able to do this, ironically, by becoming shareholders of ExxonMobil themselves and winning the support of major pension funds with large investments in the company, including CalPERS, CalSTRS, and New York State Common Retirement Fund. Taking advantage of the current ESG trend, Engine No. 1 was able to bring the oil giant to its knees by effecting change from the inside. Similarly, like Engine 1, we can pursue a similar course of action towards Altria. For those of you who wish to effect real change in Altria, you can join the Youth Impact Fund, a student-led project with the goal of mobilizing and developing grassroots support and action in order to pressure unethical companies to change their unsustainable business practices. By becoming shareholders of Altria ourselves, we will be able to attend shareholder meetings and send letters to Altria’s top brass. As shareholders, we will have more of a say on the company policy and therefore be able to effect real change.

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The Stop Juul's unethical marketing of e-cigarettes towards children. petition to Altria Group Inc. was written by 창성 강 and is in the category Health at GoPetition.