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

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.
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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. In 2019, it added funding for the high schools program.

Lorillard and R.J. Reynolds also funded or ran youth anti-smoking programmes in the early 2000s. The U.S. National School Boards Association reportedly stated in 2014 that it would support an anti-smoking curriculum created by Reynolds. However, this announcement was criticized by legislators and experts on tobacco control. They then terminated the relationship five days after Reynolds’ initial statements. Congress was critical of Juul, an e-cigarette manufacturer that paid a limited number schools to follow an anti-vaping curriculum created by company consultants.

Long-time experts in tobacco control have argued that the funding of industry programs creates conflicts and is not effective to stop youth from using cigarettes. 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.

Botvin LifeSkills was specifically the focus of a study that took place in 2006. Journal of Adolescent HealthThe study was based on the internal assessments by the tobacco industry of the program and did not find any evidence that it decreased youth smoking. However, it was endorsed and supported by reputable organizations such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 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.”

TIME received a statement from a spokesperson for the CDC confirming that LifeSkills was deemed effective by the agency 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.”

Despite this, programs such as LifeSkills are still in high demand thanks to the 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. Ahlo would receive a grant if he applied and was granted it. Teachers and schools who partner with Ahlo’s health district will be provided free education materials and paid for training to teach the course. According to TIME’s grant invitation, Ahlo received. “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. Altria companies provided approximately $25 million of funding to youth initiatives in 2020.

One might say that there is no value in the money. 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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