Tobacco Divestment Project Battles Business As Usual With AM-Smoking-Kids, Bjt
BOSTON (AP) _ Anti-smoking activists said Thursday they are borrowing a tactic from apartheid opponents and pushing a nationwide campaign to get government agencies and universities to sell off their tobacco company stocks.
″Until now it’s been business as usual with the tobacco companies,″ said Patrick Reynolds, whose grandfather founded R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. ″But things are changing.″
He and other advocates for the Boston-based Tobacco Divestment Project have launched a campaign to pressure hospitals, universities and state retirement funds to divest their holdings in tobacco companies.
″We’re hoping that much like the anti-apartheid movement brought about a shift in the way South Africa was viewed ... this will bring about a shift in the way tobacco companies are viewed,″ said Reynolds, who runs the Foundation for a Smokefree America in Los Angeles.
The anti-smoking campaign recently has grabbed attention, from Health Secretary Louis Sullivan’s call Thursday for a ban on cigarette vending machines to Harvard University’s announcement that it sold all stock in companies that manufacture tobacco products.
Sullivan’s proposal, made during testimony before the Senate Finance Committee, also included a provision that would create a licensing system for tobacco retailers and establish penalties for those who sell cigarettes to minors.
″We believe all this will really tighten the vice around tobacco firms,″ said Brad Krevor, the project’s executive director.
Krevor said the project’s 12-member board and grassroots activists around the country are asking institutions to reexamine their investment portfolios and, where necessary, sell ″inappropriate″ holdings.
″We will no longer allow the predatory marketing practices of these (tobacco) companies to continue,″ he said.
George Knox, a spokesman for Philip Morris Cos., said the tobacco maker was aware of the divestment effort but far from panicked.
″We are not sitting here biting our fingernails,″ he said in a telephone interview from New York. ″But clearly we are not unconcerned with the issue.″
He said investors buy and sell stock based on a variety of criteria but that so far ″we’ve still had a healthy market in our stock and expect that to continue.″
Krevor said health and life insurers would be a particular project target because they offer breaks for non-smokers while simultaneously investing funds from policies in tobacco stocks.
″We certainly are holding tobacco company stocks, but I haven’t found anyone interested in talking about the divest project at this time,″ said Charles McGillicuddy, a spokesman for John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Boston.
Krevor said he was optimistic that targeted stockholders would be receptive to the divestment campaign because ″in many cases people don’t even know they have tobacco holdings.″
The divestment project’s campaign got a substantial boost May 18 with Harvard’s decision to sell its tobacco securities, among the largest such university holdings in the nation; and the decision Monday of the trustees of the City University of New York to take similar action.
Harvard President Derek Bok wrote that Harvard’s board ″was motivated by a desire not to be associated ... with companies engaged in significant sales of products that create a substantial and unjustified risk of harm to other human beings.″
Divestment project officials, who launched their campaign here May 10, said beyond applying financial pressure they hoped to sway legislators toward higher tobacco taxes and a ban on cigarette advertising.
″That comes after we succeed in creating a darker image for the tobacco companies,″ said Reynolds, whose grandfather died of smoking-related emphysema.
Cigarettes, health officials say, cause about 390,000 premature deaths annually from lung cancer, heart disease and other cardiovascular disorders.