One hundred and twenty teen leaders from New York State took on Altria Group executives and shareholders on May 16 for the fourth consecutive year.
Their actions, centered outside the Richmond Convention Center, and areas nearby, focused on why the tobacco giant baited consumers and public health officials with the promise of withdrawing pod-based nicotine products from the market to combat teen vaping use and then switched their priorities by investing $12.8 billion in e-cigarette company JUUL Labs. The teens represented Reality Check of New York.
“Altria blamed nicotine pods and fruity flavors for fueling a surge in teen vaping,” said Joseph Potter, manager of the Reality Check program of Monroe County. “If that’s the case, then why did they invest in JUUL, the company that made these types of e-cigarettes so popular?”
“Despite what they say, Altria spends billions marketing their deadly products right in front of us, first cigarettes and now JUUL,” said Makayla Roberto, a ninth grader at Pittsford Sutherland and Reality Check champion. “Their goal is to create a new generation of customers — just in a different product. Enough is enough, already!”
Studies show kids who shop in stores with tobacco marketing, such as gas stations and convenience stores, are 64% more likely to start smoking than their friends who don’t.
The teens were dressed in waders and carry fishing poles with a fresh catch of JUUL nicotine pods and Marlboro cigarettes hanging from them. They wanted Altria executives, as well as the tobacco industry, to know that they won’t be “FUULed” by Big Tobacco investment in JUUL and will carry out the awareness-raising work they started in Richmond in their communities back home.
Some youth took their stories right to the biggest fish — the Chairman and CEO of Altria Group, Howard Willard. Eight Reality Check teens and two youth leaders were given shareholder proxy tickets and went inside the meeting to address corporate tobacco executives and ask questions.
Altria’s investment will allow JUUL products to be displayed alongside regular cigarettes in the nation’s retail outlets, a combination that undercuts earlier promises Altria made with former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb to clamp down on the youth vaping “epidemic.”
Public health officials and youth leaders for Reality Check, who have successfully fought to eliminate youth-attracting marketing tactics like colorful packaging and candy flavors in cigarettes through the years, see this as their next big battle to reduce teen tobacco use.
Findings on youth tobacco use and tobacco industry marketing in places where children and young adolescents can see it indicate:
The average age of a new smoker in New York is 13 years old, and 90% of adult smokers say they first tried smoking by age 18.
The U.S. tobacco industry spent an estimated $9.5 billion on advertising and promotion of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco in 2013. This includes nearly $220 million annually in New York state or nearly $602,000 a day.
Stores popular among adolescents contain almost three times more tobacco marketing materials compared to other stores in the same community.
This Altria shareholders demonstration was a joint effort between Reality Check NY, No Limits of Nebraska and Counter Tools of Chapel Hill, a nonprofit organization that provides training to public health workers who are working on point of sale tobacco control. In preparation for demonstrating, the Reality Check youth spent time learning about tobacco control policies, how the tobacco industry contracts with retailers and how they can stand up, speak out and make a difference in the fight against big tobacco.
Reality Check is a teen-led, adult-run program that seeks to prevent and decrease tobacco use among young people throughout New York State.
Visit for more information about Reality Check.