American Red Cross Under Pressure to Stop Accepting Tobacco Money

American Red Cross Under Pressure to Stop Accepting Tobacco Money

The American Red Cross is under pressure from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and public health advocates to stop accepting donations from tobacco companies, Reuters reports.

According to tax records, press releases, and annual reports, the American Red Cross and its U.S. affiliates — which, for more than a decade, have raised at least $1 billion annually — have received at least $12 million since 2001 from tobacco companies such as Altria Group, Reynolds American, and Philip Morris International. IFRC, whose disease prevention program includes a strong anti-tobacco component and which has refused donations from tobacco companies since 2008, as have all but half a dozen of its a hundred and eighty-nine national affiliates, is concerned that the American Red Cross's acceptance of tobacco money will tarnish the image of the global humanitarian network. IFRC under-secretary general Matthias Schmale told Reuters that IFRC officials have asked its U.S. affiliate to stop accepting tobacco funding and would continue "to put pressure" on the organization to change its policy. "We have been very clear about the potential reputational damage not just for them but for all of us," said Schmale. "So far we have not taken the route of public condemnation. We want to respect that they are an important supporter of ours."

American Red Cross spokesperson Laura Howe declined to comment on the dispute with the international federation — whose guidelines are not binding on its affiliates — but said her organization was happy to accept any funds that support its efforts to assist disaster victims. All donations "are important to the American Red Cross and the disaster victims they assist," Howe told Reuters. "Collectively, donations of all amounts allow us to provide disaster victims with food, shelter, and emotional support."

Many public health advocates argue that the Red Cross's mandate to assist victims of disaster is at odds with its acceptance of funds from an industry whose product causes cancer. "The Red Cross/Red Crescent movement is respected around the world for protecting life, health, and human dignity,"  the Public Health Law Center,  Action on Smoking & Health, and other U.S. advocacy groups said in a letter to ARC president Gail McGovern last December. "To lend its enormous credibility, connection and influence to an industry that sells and promotes a product that kills six million people a year is a serious violation of the most basic principles of public health."

Other critics argue that by accepting donations from tobacco interests, the Red Cross is providing the tobacco industry with a public-relations boost. How the dispute is resolved could have implications beyond the Red Cross itself; anti-tobacco activists hope that if the organization decides to stop accepting donations from tobacco companies, it could influence other large, visible nonprofit organizations to follow suit.

All of which may be moot, according to Charity Navigator president and CEO Ken Berger. "One reality is no matter what size a nonprofit is, they are usually strapped for cash. To have money that is unrestricted and could be used for general operations [is] the most precious [resource]."

Jilian Mincer. "American Red Cross Pressured to Rid Itself of Tobacco Money." Reuters 01/07/2015.