The Tobacco Giant That Won’t Stop Funding Children’s Anti-Smoking Programs

Tobacco giant Altria, owner of the maker of Marlboro cigarettes and a stake in vaping company Juul Labs, has been quietly funding substance use prevention training for middle and high school students for years, despite extensive research suggesting industry-sponsored school programs do not discourage teens from smoking — and maybe even do the opposite.

Altria has provided funding for more than a decade to support the implementation of the Botvin LifeSkills Training program through the University of Colorado Boulder Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence (CSPV). The program — which was created by behavioral scientist Gilbert Botvin, who did not respond to requests for comment — teaches elementary to high school students tools they can use to prevent substance use, violence and other risky behaviors.
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Altria’s relationship with CSPV is long-standing and has been made public by both parties, but appears to have remained largely under the radar. When asked about it at TIME this month, Dr. Jonathan Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, wrote in an email that he was surprised to hear about the program, “coming from the public health world where such funding is avoided.”

“I don’t think most people know” [about this]Cheryl Healton, 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 don’t they stop?”

In an email, a CU Boulder representative said that, to the best of CSPV’s knowledge, tobacco companies have never been involved in LifeSkills curriculum development. “The center independently facilitates program implementation, program recipient selection and oversight,” the spokesperson wrote. “Students are never introduced to [Altria] branding.”

The support from Altria’s customer service division — which amounts to millions of dollars in grants — is the latest chapter in a long roadmap. For decades, Big Tobacco brands have funded youth smoking prevention programs in an effort to, as Healton claims, ” [themselves] as part of the solution” against smoking by minors without substantially changing their business.

In an email to TIME, an Altria spokesperson wrote that the company is doing this “to address a core problem: underage tobacco use. In addition to the actions we have taken to promote responsible marketing and access for minors To tobacco products, we support a range of evidence-based positive youth development programs.”

Philip Morris, later renamed Altria, began supporting the LifeSkills program in the late 1990s — before joining CU Boulder — along with fellow tobacco company Brown & Williamson. When CU Boulder’s CSPV began implementing the program in 2009, Altria began funding its efforts to distribute the curriculum to high school students. It added support for the high school program in 2019.

RJ Reynolds and Lorillard also led or funded youth anti-smoking programs in the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2014, the U.S. National School Boards Association announced that it would promote an anti-smoking curriculum developed by RJ Reynolds, which was criticized by lawmakers and tobacco control experts, 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 corporate advisors.

Tobacco experts have long argued that industry-funded programs involve conflicts of interest and have not been proven to discourage smoking among young people. Some research has even suggested the opposite: A 2002 study co-authored with Healton found that children exposed to Big Tobacco programming viewed the tobacco industry more favorably than those who were not.

The Botvin LifeSkills program was the subject of a 2006 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health that used internal tobacco industry evaluations of the program and found little evidence to suggest that it reduced youth smoking, although it was endorsed by reputable groups, including the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). On its website, LifeSkills currently says that other major organizations, including the US Department of Education and the US National Institute on Drug Abuse, have recognized it for “program excellence.”

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

Today, the CDC explicitly says that “tobacco industry-sponsored tobacco prevention programs in schools are ineffective and may promote tobacco use among young people.” 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.”

But programs like LifeSkills continue to spread, thanks to money from the tobacco industry.

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 partnering with his health district could receive free educational materials from the LifeSkills program, and teachers would be paid to complete the training needed to conduct the course, according to a grant. invitation that has been reviewed by TIME. “This grant opportunity comes at a critical time when COVID-19 has impacted budgets and requires 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 demonstrating Altria’s financial involvement. “If the tobacco industry were really interested in tackling youth tobacco problems,” he says, it would support initiatives such as raising the price of cigarettes and eliminating flavored products. Using 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 involvement in program implementation is not the right approach, so we are investing in proven effective, evidence-based programs such as the LifeSkills Training program,” they wrote in an email to TIME.

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

Some might argue that the good done with that money, especially within often cramped schools, makes the resource irrelevant. But Healton says there’s no such thing as free 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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