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No, this is not a headline from The Onion. Corporate Responsibility Magazine has once again ranked Altria as one of the “100 Best Corporate Citizens.” This year Altria is number 20. Corporate Responsibility annually ranks public companies based on their performance in seven categories: environment, climate change, employee relations, human rights, governance, finance and philanthropy. Apparently, the fact that Altria manufactures and sells an addictive product that kills up to half of its lifelong customers when used as directed does not detract from its status as a top corporate citizen.

CR Magazine’s editor is quoted in Corporate Counsel, a publication about legal business news, as acknowledging that “business success is an important factor” in the ratings. And make no mistake about it – Altria runs a very successful business. According to the Associated Press, Altria earned $1.38 billion for the first quarter of 2013, up from $1.19 billion a year ago. But the editor also maintains that there’s more to the rankings than just financial performance, pointing to a particular emphasis on environmental impact and employee relations.

We don’t know much about Altria’s employment practices and they may well be exemplary. But rewarding Altria for its environmental record (number 47 in the rankings) is definitely puzzling. Cigarettes, Altria’s main product, are the most prominent type of litter on U.S. roadways as well as the most prevalent form of debris on our beaches and inland waterways. This litter, most of which consists of non-biodegradable cigarette butts, is far from a harmless annoyance. Studies confirm that toxins leach out of cigarette litter and into the environment including our oceans and waterways, threatening fish and other organisms. Second hand smoke, classified by the EPA as a Class A carcinogen, pollutes the air we breathe and causes close to 50,000 deaths in the U.S. every year. Tobacco manufacturing and tobacco farming also have a profound environmental impact. In 2011, 902,628 pounds of toxic chemicals were released into the air by tobacco product manufacturing facilities in the U.S. alone. Studies have shown that tobacco cultivation contributes significantly to deforestation and degradation of the environment, particularly in the developing world.

Then there’s the human rights category. At 16 percent of the total corporate responsibility score, human rights performance is weighted a little lower than environmental impact (19.5 percent) but it’s still an important part of the calculation. According to CR Magazine, Altria is in a seventeen way tie for 70th in this category. Altria is a leading manufacturer of a product that causes over 400,000 deaths a year in the U.S. and close to six million deaths every year worldwide. Just how does a tobacco manufacturer manage to tie for the 70th best human rights record in corporate America?

Lauding a tobacco company as an example of public responsibility should be a joke, but unfortunately in this case it isn’t. Corporate Responsibility should take some common sense responsibility of its own and remove Altria from its list of best corporate citizens.

Ellen Vargyas-LegacyEllen Vargyas
General Counsel and Corporate Secretary

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