Why Would the Red Cross Accept Money from Big Tobacco?

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January 7, 2015; Reuters

The International Red Cross initiated an anti-smoking component to its global disease prevention campaign in 2008 and, in doing so, stopped taking donations from tobacco companies. That isn’t the case with the American Red Cross (or the Red Cross affiliates in Russia and Germany). Jilian Mincer reports for Reuters that the American Red Cross has accepted at least $12 million since 2001 from tobacco companies, including the Altria Group, Reynolds American, and Philip Morris International.

Specific numbers on tobacco company contributions to the ARC aren’t available—in part because the ARC’s 990s are not required to report on the sources of its donations, in part because a significant part of corporate philanthropy occurs directly through undisclosed company donations as opposed to disclosed donations through corporate foundations, and in part because Mincer reported that Red Cross spokesperson Laura Howe would not provide details of the tobacco contributions the ARC received.

This contretemps is a very clear example of the problems of some kinds of corporate philanthropy. The American Red Cross defends its use of tobacco money with the argument that any contributions, tobacco or otherwise, that help the Red Cross with its disaster relief functions are welcome and worthwhile. In contrast, last month the Public Health Law Center, Action on Smoking & Health, and other U.S. health advocacy organizations wrote a pointed letter to ARC President Gail McGovern calling for a change in the ARC’s tobacco money policies:

“The Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement is respected around the world for protecting life, health and human dignity. […] To lend its enormous credibility, connection and influence to an industry that sells and promotes a product that kills 6 million people a year is a serious violation of the most basic principles of public health.”

All too many corporations buy their way into the public’s good graces through philanthropic giving, and many nonprofits are quite willing for financial reasons to let that happen. It would seem that ARC has the fundraising mindset that the source of a nonprofit’s money is of no consequence so long as the nonprofit puts the money to good use. But in the case of the Red Cross, tobacco money compromises the organization’s credibility. If the Red Cross were only about disaster relief and not health, then maybe (and only maybe) it could make the argument that Howe makes about the importance of raising money for that purpose, even if the money came from tobacco companies. But the “what we do” page of the American Red Cross website identifies five categories of programs, one of the five being “Health and Safety Training and Education.”

One would think that the Red Cross had advanced considerably since World War I, when its famous “Red Cross parcels” sent to American troops in Europe contained packets of tobacco, and since World War II when they included packages of cigarettes. Public knowledge of the dangers of tobacco today would probably preclude even the tobacco-funded ARC from sending cigarettes to troops in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The ARC’s own guidelines for fundraising partnerships with businesses explicitly state that any “proposed promotion must not…encourage the direct sale and/or promotion of firearms, alcohol and/or tobacco.” Is the ARC’s acceptance of tobacco money allowable because someone might be able to argue that that that isn’t the same as “promoting” the use of tobacco? For the purposes of the tobacco industry, always interested in burnishing its image and reputation given the unchallengeable health dangers of tobacco use, the willingness of the ARC to accept tobacco company donations and the PR the companies get from associating with the Red Cross does approximate promotion—and implies that the Red Cross does not object to philanthropy based on products that cause cancer and kill millions of smokers and non-smokers.

The American Red Cross is a brand name itself, though recently tarnished as a result of ProPublica’s investigative pieces on the ARC’s alleged misrepresentation of cost allocations and expenditures and its performance regarding Superstorm Sandy relief efforts. Still, for most Americans who aren’t tracking stories about nonprofits, the Red Cross is still widely respected and trusted. Consequently, the ARC has a bigger responsibility than most other nonprofits when it comes to the messages its policies and actions imply. People look to the ARC, a health-related organization, and see its willingness to do business with big tobacco as a statement running counter to the many organizations that are divesting from tobacco stocks because of the societal costs and damage they cause.

What does it mean to efforts such as the tobacco-free campuses campaign—1,477 college campuses and 3,822 hospitals are entirely tobacco-free—to find the ARC giving tobacco a pass? What does it mean to efforts to get colleges and universities to join the 33 institutions of higher education, including Harvard University and the Harvard School of Public Health, the University of California-Berkeley and its School of Public Health, Emory University Medical School, the University of North Carolina School of Public Health, and the Ohio State University School of Public Health, that have divested from tobacco stocks? Does it matter to the ARC that such major foundations as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, and even the Rockefeller Foundation have divested from tobacco?

Jesse Bragg, the media director of Corporate Accountability International, one of the organizations that signed the letter to the ARC, told NPQ that he believes that the Red Cross has “an opportunity here to set the precedent for other health-oriented nonprofits…especially because [the tobacco money] is such a small part of what they raise every year.” With over $3.4 billion in total revenues in 2013, ranking it sixth on the NPT Top 100 list, the American Red Cross could disgorge itself of tobacco money without much or any financial consequences. It is hardly a nonprofit “usually strapped for cash” “no matter what size…[it] is,” the explanation offered by one commentator as to why the ARC might solicit tobacco money.

“Why associate with an industry that kills six million people a year?” Bragg asks. That is exactly the right question for the American Red Cross.—Rick Cohen

  • Health advocate from Switzerland

    Excellent article on a subject that many people do not yet understand, and that does not get enough debate in the world of NGOs. The Tobacco Atlas estimâtes that one person dies from use of cigarettes or exposure to secondhand smoke for every $6000 profit that the Tobacco industry makes. If that is true, it means that 2000 people died to earn the 12 million that American Red Cross has accepted….

    The reason that any company invests in good causes is to develop good will, a good reputation and friends so as to be able to do business better. There is no harm in that if it is a normal business, but selling a product that kills a large proportion of the people who use it as intended is not normal, and Tobacco is the only legal product that fits that description. The Tobacco industry uses charitable contributions to buy credibility and friends in high places, and it uses what it has bought to resist adoption of life-saving Tobacco control policies.

    Around the world, secondhand smoke kills more people than weapons do…..and smoking kills many times more. Tobacco is not just another business with a dark spot…..it is dark to the core.

  • Brian Schott

    “Why associate with an industry that kills six million people a year?” This is an excellent question. And not just for the Red Cross.

    A quick search shows that Red Cross is far from the only institution to accept funding from Altria. Most disturbingly organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters, 4H, Boys and Girls Clubs of America and numerous others that serve youth take millions each year. I was just solicited by Boys & Girls Club purporting to teach kids about Healthy Lifestyles – clearly something is amiss.

    Altria is a business, it’s fine and good that they are philanthropic. I just question charities that exist for health, safety, or for serving vulnerable youth grabbing dollars with such questionable sources rather than aligning their donation acceptance with what they preach.