This nonprofit wants brands to pressure their agencies to drop tobacco clients

The Quit Big Tobacco campaign from Vital Strategies is using HP's agency diversity push as a guide.

It’s time for the advertising industry to quit Big Tobacco cold turkey, according to one nonprofit.

Health advocacy organization Vital Strategies has launched a campaign, Quit Big Tobacco, that asks staffers at ad agencies to not work with tobacco clients. It also wants brands to refuse to work with firms that have tobacco clients, and for universities to refuse money from tobacco companies for research.

More than 80 universities, marketing firms, government agencies, and NGOs have signed the Quit Big Tobacco pledge.

At a Vital event in New York on Thursday, panelists from Edelman, GMMB, Human, Johns Hopkins, and Vital discussed how advertising is helping to sell tobacco and made the case for why the industry should take a stand against smoking.

Although there are major restrictions on how tobacco companies can advertise around the world, it’s time for the advertising industry to cut ties completely with Big Tobacco, according to the panel.

Jimmie Stone, chief creative officer at Edelman, likened the tobacco industry to a hydra, the many-headed mythical beast that regrows a head when it is cut off, and called on the industry to unite behind a single message to end tobacco advertising.

"We’re entering into a behavioral marketing era," Stone said. "The way you behave is your marketing. Not any longer can you build marketing with what you say, but with what you do. These types of companies, like REI closing stores on Black Friday and CVS taking cigarettes out of its stores, are getting a lot of attention."

Madalene Milano, partner at GMMB, added, "We need that version of a large ad agency to step forward and do what CVS did. It took a lot of courage."

Vital Strategies has identified agencies that have tobacco clients, including Leo Burnett and Ogilvy & Mather. Panelists said clients can pressure their agencies not to work on behalf of tobacco companies, with the example of HP pushing agency partners to diversity their client teams in order to hold on to its business.

"We found agencies on the one hand working for tobacco and on the other hand working for healthcare," said Stephen Hamill, VP at Vital Strategies. "Getting clients on board is a clear mandate. There’s so many in the public health world and there's so many agencies and corporations trying to take up the call for greater causes. They’re natural allies."

With strict U.S. restrictions on tobacco advertising, much of the work on behalf of tobacco companies is being done elsewhere in the world, where tobacco companies can target younger audiences or advertise more freely. In those places, public health campaigns or policy solutions could counteract tobacco advertising.

"The tobacco industry is brilliant. As the U.S. closed ad channels and forced them remove ads from radio and TV, what’s left for them to work with?" asked Ryan Kennedy, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Global Tobacco Control. "There’s the tobacco pack and they're beautiful, especially in other parts of the world. There’s point of sale. Look carefully next time you’re in a convenience store that has tobacco promotion and they’re often lower because that’s where kids are."

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