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Opinion: The Kennedy Center should stop promoting Big Tobacco

9 September 2022

By Rebecca Perl, The Washington Post

Rebecca Perl, a former health and science reporter for The Post, is vice president of partnerships and initiatives for Vital Strategies, a partner in the tobacco industry watchdog STOP, and advises governments and nongovernmental organizations on communication strategies for tobacco control campaigns around the world as part of the Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use.

On Sept. 17, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in D.C. will launch a new exhibit dedicated to its namesake. Advance media coverage praises the center’s investment in its social impact, in line with Kennedy’s ethos and values. But as is often the case when organizations talk about being good citizens, there are gaps between the rhetoric and the reality.

For the Kennedy Center, it is taking money from some of the world’s largest tobacco corporations. Instead of rejecting hundreds of thousands of dollars gained through the sale of products linked to addiction, preventable disease and premature death, the center recently added global cigarette giant Philip Morris International (PMI) as a new corporate sponsor, alongside its long-standing relationship with PMI’s former parent company, Marlboro-maker Altria Group. Combined, they are contributing at least half a million dollars annually — a testimony to a never-ending dance of the underfunded arts with deep-pocketed corporations looking to burnish their reputations.

Yet, despite funding challenges, especially post-coronavirus, other world-class venues are making an ethical choice to end sponsorships from problematic donors. For example, when the Sackler family’s role in the opioid crisis was exposed, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York ended its 50-year relationship. The Louvre in Paris and the Guggenheim in New York and many others also dropped the Sackler name. The opioid epidemic claims more than 68,000 lives a year in the United States. The tobacco epidemic? More than 480,000.

The Kennedy Center’s commitments to better serving youths and people of color ring especially hollow while it’s helping the tobacco industry reach groups who have been targeted for decades with deceptive and even racially targeted marketing. Menthol cigarettes, promoted heavily in Black media and in predominantly Black neighborhoods, have caused disproportionate harm to Black people. Products such as nicotine pouches and e-cigarettes are believed to be hooking a new generation.

Visiting the Kennedy Center to see “The Nutcracker” last winter, I could see the Altria-sponsored 50th-anniversary theater season was packed with family- and teen-friendly productions. Attaching Altria’s name to productions for young people reminds me of Chinese tobacco companies sponsoring schools in China and other countries.

What will it take to break the Kennedy Center’s addiction to tobacco dollars? The revelation that industry executives stood before Congress a few miles away, claiming that nicotine wasn’t addictive when the companies knew that wasn’t true, wasn’t enough.

The Kennedy Center didn’t drop Altria when it invested heavily in Juul, after the Food and Drug Administration named the company as a leading player in the United States’ youth vaping epidemic. Nor when Altria spoke out against the FDA’s proposed menthol ban, which could help save up to 6,000 Black lives each year.

Instead, Altria’s brands remain etched into the center’s marble walls, including at the newest Kennedy Center venue, the Reach, which aims to embody “President Kennedy’s vision” and reach a diverse audience through education, youth programs and community outreach. Altria and PMI are on the Kennedy Center’s website, and Altria is splashed across its 50th-anniversary materials, in social media posts, newsletters and performance programs, even celebrated as “a donor that makes a difference” in the 50th-anniversary magazine. Altria’s chief executive is a vice chair of the Kennedy Center’s Corporate Fund Board, alongside PMI’s president of the Americas.

It’s easy to see why the Kennedy Center’s youth-friendly 50th season and the Reach’s youth and community audience appeal to Altria and PMI. As more smokers die or quit, the companies need to tap into the next generation. Altria’s Marlboro and Juul brands are already popular with young Americans. Both companies might also hope to influence D.C. stakeholders in their favor — and that’s potentially bad news for health.

There is, however, something especially insidious about aligning the tobacco industry with performances aimed at preschoolers, children and other youths. Perhaps it is because such shows capture the dreams of little girls and boys and the ambitions of so many young people, who continue to be targeted by cigarette companies.

President Kennedy believed the arts should be a positive force in American life. With all we know now about the tobacco industry’s tactics, discriminatory marketing, targeting of youths and addictive, deadly products, what would he think about the institution bearing his name promoting cigarette companies? The Met and others brought down the curtain on their Sackler sponsorships. If it’s serious about its social impact, it’s time the Kennedy Center ended its dance with Big Tobacco.