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The Tobacco Giant That Won’t Stop Funding Anti-Smoking Programs for Kids

6 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Tobacco giant Altria, which owns the maker of Marlboro cigarettes and a stake in vaping company Juul Labs, has for years quietly funded substance-use-prevention training for middle and high school students, despite ample research suggesting that industry-sponsored school programs do not discourage teenagers from smoking—and may in fact do the opposite.

Altria has for more than a decade provided funding to support the University of Colorado Boulder Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence’s (CSPV) implementation of the Botvin LifeSkills Training program. The program—which was created by behavioral scientist Gilbert Botvin, who did not respond to requests for comment—teaches elementary through high school students tools they can use to avoid substance use, violence, and other risky behaviors.

Altria’s relationship with CSPV is longstanding and publicly disclosed by both parties, but seems to have flown largely under the radar. When asked about it by TIME this month, Dr. Jonathan Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, wrote in an email that he was surprised to learn about the program, “coming from the public health world where such funding is avoided.”

“I don’t think most people know [about this],” agrees Cheryl Healton, who is dean of the New York University School of Global Public Health and has researched industry-sponsored smoking-prevention programs and found them to be ineffective. “Why won’t they stop?”

In an email, a representative from CU Boulder said, to CSPV’s knowledge, tobacco companies have never been involved in LifeSkills curriculum development. “The center independently facilitates implementation of the program, selection of program recipients, and oversight,” the spokesperson wrote. “At no point are students introduced to any [Altria] branding.”

The support from Altria’s client services division—which amounts to millions of dollars in grant funding—is the latest chapter in a long playbook. For decades, Big Tobacco brands have funded youth-smoking-prevention programs in an effort to, as Healton alleges, “position [themselves] as part of the solution” to underage smoking without materially changing their businesses.

In an email to TIME, a spokesperson for Altria wrote that the company does so “to help address a core business concern: underage tobacco use. In addition to the actions we’ve taken to market responsibly and limit underage access to tobacco products, we support a range of evidence-based positive youth development programs.”

Philip Morris, which later rebranded as Altria, began supporting the LifeSkills program in the late 1990s—before it was affiliated with CU Boulder—along with fellow tobacco company Brown & Williamson. When CU Boulder’s CSPV started implementing the program in 2009, Altria began funding its efforts to disseminate the curriculum to middle schoolers. It added support for the high school program in 2019.

R.J. Reynolds and Lorillard also ran or funded youth anti-smoking programs in the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2014, the U.S. National School Boards Association reportedly announced that it would promote an anti-smoking curriculum developed by R.J. Reynolds, got criticized by lawmakers and tobacco-control experts, and then ended the relationship within five days of the initial statement. In 2019, the e-cigarette company Juul was roasted by Congress for paying a small number of schools to implement an anti-vaping curriculum developed by company consultants.

Tobacco-control experts have long argued that industry-funded programs introduce conflicts of interest and are not proven to discourage youth smoking. In fact, some research has suggested the opposite: A 2002 study co-authored by Healton found that children who were exposed to Big Tobacco’s programming viewed the tobacco industry more favorably than those who weren’t.

The Botvin LifeSkills program, specifically, was the subject of a 2006 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health, which drew on internal tobacco-industry assessments of the program and found little evidence to suggest it reduced youth smoking, even though it was endorsed by reputable groups including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Other studies have come to more positive conclusions. One study published in 2014 found that middle school students who completed the program were less likely to have issues with drugs, alcohol, and tobacco years later. On its website, LifeSkills currently says that other big-name organizations, including the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, have recognized it for “program excellence.”

In a statement to TIME, a CDC spokesperson confirmed that the agency branded LifeSkills an effective program in the 1990s. “Since that time, the tobacco product landscape has changed dramatically,” the spokesperson wrote. “As such, CDC cannot speak to the effectiveness of the current tobacco-related modules in the LifeSkills Training Program.”

Today, the CDC says explicitly that “tobacco industry-sponsored school-based tobacco prevention programs are ineffective and may promote tobacco use among youth.” The World Health Organization also advises governments and public health groups not to accept funding from the tobacco industry, and the United Nations has declared a “fundamental conflict of interest between the tobacco industry and public health.”

Yet programs like LifeSkills continue to proliferate, thanks to tobacco-industry money.

In January, Malcolm Ahlo, who leads tobacco-control efforts for the Southern Nevada Health District, received an offer to apply for a grant from CU Boulder’s CSPV. If Ahlo applied for and received the grant, schools that partner with his health district could receive free educational materials from the LifeSkills program and teachers would be paid to take the training needed to lead the course, according to a grant invitation reviewed by TIME. “This grant opportunity comes at a critical time when COVID-19 has impacted budgets and demanded the social-emotional competencies and healthy coping strategies taught within the LST program,” the form reads.

Ahlo was intrigued until he saw a funding disclosure showing Altria’s financial involvement. “If the tobacco industry were truly interested in addressing youth tobacco issues,” he says, it would support initiatives like increasing the price of cigarettes and eliminating flavored products. To use a prevention program funded by Big Tobacco, he says, would be “sleeping with the enemy.”

The Altria spokesperson defended the company’s actions. “We know that our direct engagement in the implementation of programs is not the right approach, so we invest in proven effective, evidence-based programs like LifeSkills Training program,” they wrote in an email to TIME.

In addition to its involvement with LifeSkills, Altria’s tobacco companies also invest in youth-focused organizations including 4-H, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and Boys & Girls Clubs, according to its website. In 2020, companies owned by Altria provided roughly $25 million in funding for youth initiatives.

Some might argue that the good done with that money, particularly within often cash-strapped schools, makes its source irrelevant. But Healton says there’s no such thing as no-strings-attached money from Big Tobacco.

“It sends a really interesting message to the young people, and it’s not true,” Healton says. “The message it sends is, ‘The tobacco industry really cares about me.’”

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Write to Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme@time.com