RICHMOND, Va. — Four youth leaders from Nebraska joined 120 fellow teens from across the country to take on Altria Group executives and shareholders earlier this month in Virginia’s capital for the fourth consecutive year. Organizing outside the Richmond Convention Center and in nearby areas May 16, the group voiced their discontent of the tobacco giant baiting consumers and public health officials with the promise of withdrawing pod-based nicotine products from the market to combat teen vaping use only to turn around and invest $12.8 billion in e-cigarette company Juul Labs.
“Altria blamed nicotine pods and fruity flavors for fueling a surge in teen vaping,” said Kamrin Edmonds, a recent graduate of Wilber-Clatonia High School and youth board member of Nebraska youth-led, anti-tobacco movement No Limits. “If that’s the case, then why did they invest in Juul, the company that made these types of e-cigarettes so popular?”
Studies show that kids who shop in stores with tobacco marketing, such as gas stations and convenience stores, are 64 percent more likely to start smoking than those who don’t.
“Despite what they say, Altria spends billions marketing their deadly products right in front of us, first cigarettes and now Juul,” said Seth Vlasak, a fellow 2019 Wilber-Clatonia graduate and No Limits Youth Board member. “Their goal is to create a new generation of customers—just in a different product. Enough is enough already!”
The teens carried banners, posters and fishing poles with a fresh catch of Juul nicotine pods and Marlboro cigarettes hanging from them. They want Altria executives and the entire tobacco industry to know that they won’t be “Fuuled” by Big Tobacco’s investment in Juul and will continue to carry out the awareness they raised in Richmond in their communities back home.
Some youth took their stories right to the biggest fish—the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Altria Group Howard Willard. Vlasak and four other teens attended the shareholder meeting with proxy tickets to address corporate tobacco executives and ask questions face to face.
“The group that was able to go inside of the meeting prepared questions to ask the CEO of Altria, and I will never forget how he dodged every question we had for him just to spin it around to how great the company was doing this last year,” Vlasak said. “It just goes to show how much they value profits over human life.”
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 (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb to clamp down on the youth vaping “epidemic.”
This Altria shareholders demonstration was a joint effort between No Limits and Reality Check of New York. In preparation for the demonstration, youth spent the day before 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.