NO Smoking Please!!!(Archive)
For most of my teenage years, I was embarrassed that my mother had a rather uncompromising sign over our kitchen door that read “NO Smoking Please”. One of my sisters’ boyfriends would make quite a show of wedging himself into the basement fireplace (literally) and smoking a cigarette in a fetal position. My own non-smoking was due mostly to an inability to inhale, which I apparently share with Bill Clinton. Like Bill, I tried to smoke pot after I moved out from under that sign but coughed maybe $100 worth of smoke into the atmosphere before another sister gave up on me. I never tried cigarettes. In later years I grew to be proud of the sign and unjustifiably self-righteous as my life insurance rates stayed low.
My two sons inherited some of their grandmother’s anti-smoking zeal. In a rare show of academic collaboration, they teamed up to stop a friend from smoking with a thick dissertation on its dangers. The paper featured pictures of blackened lungs and decimated bodies procured from studies readily available to young students. They particularly highlighted the danger to people who breathe smoke involuntarily off the ends of someone else’s cigarette. After a few weeks, the friend stopped.
The issues I have with the tobacco industry have never centered solely on their product, though. My colleagues and I have run into the long shadow they cast in a larger context many times. Tobacco companies have always been right in the front of the small army fighting socially responsible investing, portraying it as anti-capitalist. They fight in the back halls of any venue they can find to protect their right to make money any way they want with as little public disclosure as possible. Tobacco companies seem to live in a moral vacuum protected by piles of cash often used to buy political allies.
A big tobacco company reached a new and revealing ethical low recently. Phillip Morris released a study in Eastern Europe that was simply unimaginable to me and to most of the people who saw it. This study showed that smoking saved the Czech government $30 million a year in pension and health care costs for the elderly since cigarette smoking reduced life expectancy by 4.5 years.
The work that my Trillium Asset Management colleagues and I do as shareholder advocates is never about putting companies out of business. We aim for and believe in an economic and business system that protects the fundamental rights of all individuals and the world we live in. Many company representatives share the long-term goals we espouse. In most of our dialogues, we talk mainly of differences of opinion about how to accomplish those goals. But tobacco companies are different. As awareness of the dangers of smoking has increased in the U.S., they go about their business of creating new markets. One of their latest targets is the female population of China, still mostly not smoking.
Several days after the initial study found its way into the news, Phillip Morris apologized. But this latest show of callous self-interest only reinforced a profile of a company with no social responsiveness. Some things just do not lend themselves to compromise.