Mad Men and My Own Tobacco Pledge

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I love Mad Men.

 I don’t know if it’s because I grew up in the time period it takes place, the early 1960s, and my father was a Manhattan businessman who wore attire identical to those in the show, but every Sunday at 10 p.m., as tired as I may be, that’s what I’m watching.

In the next-to-last episode of the season that just ended, there is a crucial scene in which Don Draper, the main advertising executive in the show, pens an ad in The New York Times titled “Why I’m Quitting Tobacco.” He admits that his firm made lots of money creating ads for cigarette companies, but won’t do so again because tobacco is an addictive product that “never improves, causes illness, and makes people unhappy.” Don declares that with tobacco out of his life, he can now sleep at night.

Now, for those who follow the show, we all know that Don Draper does this not out of principle (in the next scene he argues about what he has done with the other partners of his firm, with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth), but as a cynical move to drum up other advertising business. 

That being said, watching all this sparked the memory of a Youth Today cover story from 2009 (July/August) titled “The Cent of Tobacco” with the subtitle, “As feds crack down on youth smoking, companies give millions to youth groups.” It details numerous instances of youth service nonprofits accepting millions of dollars from cigarette manufacturers: the National 4-H Council accepting more than $25 million over 10 years from Philip Morris, maker of Marlboro; Big Brothers Big Sisters accepting $22.5 million from the same company over a six-year period; and The Forum for Youth Investment accepting $3.6 million over four years. Not to be outdone, rival cigarette manufacturer R.J. Reynolds donates millions of dollars each year to the Y, YWCA, Boy Scouts of America and many others.

The article goes on to quote several of the nonprofit executives as to why it was fine for them to accept money from cigarette manufacturers. “We’ll take money from anybody and everybody to fuel our growth plan and break the cycles of poverty,” said Judy Vredenburgh, outgoing CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters. (“How about crack dealers? Meth manufacturers?” I wondered. Everybody and anybody is a pretty wide net.) Karen Pittman, CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment and a fellow Youth Today columnist, went so far as to tape a video for the Philip Morris website, proclaiming, “Philips Morris has been an absolutely terrific partner from the beginning.”

Well, here is my take on this whole thing. Philip Morris, R. J. Reynolds and their ilk have a mission: to make money. And they succeed in this mission by manufacturing a product that kills people. They do this knowingly. They may deny it and tobacco’s addictive qualities. (Visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQUNk5meJHs for one of the more well-known videos of cigarette executives denying this, despite overwhelming scientific evidence.) But no matter how much they deny it, it is true. What they do for a living causes people to become very sick and die early.

We, on the other hand, in the youth service field, have a very different mission. Our mission is to save lives. It’s a very different mission from that of Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds. In fact, the missions are incompatible. And because of that reality, no CEO of a youth service agency should accept donations or anything else from one of these companies. It’s as simple as that.

Full disclosure: Twice I worked for nonprofits that accepted donations from Philip Morris; one received a shipment of Christmas gifts from them, another a $25,000 donation. Each time I wrote to my agency’s executive director asking that we not accept gifts from a corporation that manufactures cancer. Each time they ignored me, taking the gifts or cash. 

When you are running an organization like the 4H Club, the Forum for Youth Investment, or Spectrum Youth and Family Services, where I work, in my opinion, it is important to try as best you can to keep in alignment what your mission is, the values underlying that mission, and all other activities, including from whom you accept money. Can you vet every single donor, sending them a questionnaire about who they are and what they believe? No, that is clearly unrealistic and impractical. But taking money from cancer manufacturers? Even Don Draper would probably know what the right call is on that one.   

 

Mark Redmond is executive director of Spectrum Youth and Family Services, Burlington, Vt., and the author of “The Goodness Within: Reaching out to Troubled Teens with Compassion and Love.” He can be reached at mredmond@spectrumvt.org.