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Reality Check Speaks Out at Altria

Despite the 80-degree temperatures in Richmond, VA on Thursday, May 17, a cold front passed through downtown just in time for the Altria Group shareholders annual meeting. The icy blast, expected to storm through the area around the Richmond Convention Center, included 60 youth from Reality Check New York and No Limits Nebraska carrying snowmen puppets and ice cube shaped balloons.

This winter of discontent, a third annual pilgrimage for the Reality Check teens from across New York State, was themed “Cold As Ice” to parody the new Marlboro Ice Blast packaging and marketing campaign that has stormed through retail stores earlier this year. The group’s goal: to tell Altria Group, the nation’s No. 1 tobacco company and owner of Marlboro maker Philip Morris USA (PMUSA), that they’ve seen enough tobacco marketing and they want the company to do something about it.

Some youth took their chilling stories right to the top – the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Altria Group, Martin J. Barrington. Three Reality Check teens were given shareholder proxy tickets and went inside the meeting to address corporate tobacco executives and ask questions.

“Philip Morris USA claims it doesn’t market to kids and doesn’t want them to start smoking,” said Bonnie Peck, coordinator of the Reality Check program of Delaware, Otsego, and Schoharie Counties. “If that’s the case, then why are they spending $9.6 billion per year to market their Marlboro and other products where kids are likely to see it?”

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 their friends who don’t.

“Despite what they say, Philip Morris USA spends billions marketing their deadly products right in front of us,” said Jasmine Neill, a Cherry Valley-Springfield High School freshman and Reality Check advocate. “Enough is enough, already!”

Here are more cold, hard facts:

– According to the 2014 Surgeon General’s Report, if current smoking rates continue, 5.6 million Americans younger than 18 who are alive today are projected to die prematurely from smoking-related disease.
– In New York State, 108,500 high school students smoke cigarettes and each year more than 10,600 kids under 18 become new daily smokers.

This Altria shareholders demonstration was a joint effort between Reality Check NY and Counter Tools of Chapel Hill, NC, a non-profit organization that provides training to public health workers who are working on point of sale tobacco control. In preparation for demonstrating on Thursday, the Reality Check youth spent all day Wednesday 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.

Reality Check is a teen-led, adult-run program that seeks to prevent and decrease tobacco use among young people throughout New York State.

The New York State Department of Health, Bureau of Tobacco Control funds Advancing Tobacco Free Communities in Delaware, Otsego and Schoharie Counties to increase support for New York State’s tobacco-free norm through youth action and community engagement. Efforts are evidence-based, policy-driven, and cost-effective approaches that decrease youth tobacco use, motivate adult smokers to quit, and eliminate exposure to secondhand smoke.