10 Things to Know about Big Tobacco’s Arts Sponsorship

The ceiling of the British Museum

If you ever find yourself browsing the galleries at the British Museum in London, or wandering the halls of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, you might find it surprising that the art you’re admiring is sponsored in part by an industry that causes 8 million deaths every year.

Arts sponsorship is one way Big Tobacco tries to divert the public and policymakers’ attention away from the considerable harm it causes to human health, the environment and societies.

A new World Health Organization report suggests the world is slowly turning away from cigarettes; thanks to effective tobacco control measures, global rates of tobacco use among people ages 15 and older are declining. Arts sponsorship, however, can be used by tobacco companies to try to subtly re-normalize their products. And when tobacco companies receive recognition from cultural institutions, there’s a risk the public may associate these companies’ addictive products with creativity, sophistication and cultural advancement, instead of the illness and premature death they’re proven to cause.

Here are 10 things to know about the tobacco industry’s sponsorship of the arts.

1. It started in the 1950s and dramatically increased after the publication of the U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health…

Philip Morris Companies Inc., which became Altria in 2003, pioneered the tactic by funding arts groups in Richmond, Virginia, U.S.A. According to Dr. Alan Blum of the Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society, the company began sinking even more money into the arts after the 1964 U.S. Surgeon General’s report concluded that smoking caused lung cancer.

2. …And continues to this day.

The pandemic left many arts institutions financially vulnerable, as would-be patrons stayed home to protect their health. This gap in revenue likely made several institutions more vulnerable to Big Tobacco’s offers of assistance. Altria, parent company of Philip Morris USA, which manufactures Marlboro cigarettes, may have capitalized on this phenomenon; its charitable contributions to arts and cultural organizations more than doubled from US $2.7 million in 2019 to US $6.4 million in 2020.

3. Tobacco companies sponsor the arts as part of so-called corporate social responsibility (CSR).

When tobacco companies make donations or sponsor events, it’s often done primarily as a public relations exercise. It allows them to gain public favor without having to make meaningful changes to their business practices. And CSR activities may come with strings attached. After offering resources to governments, tobacco companies have been known to ask for favors, such as suppressing tobacco tax increases that could help reduce smoking.

4. Tobacco companies fund specific projects, as well as entire museums.

Philip Morris GMBH, the German subsidiary of Philip Morris International (PMI), sponsors the “Power of the Arts” initiative, where winning projects in art, theater, music, dance and more are funded at €50,000. On a larger scale, Philip Morris International Management SA is listed as a corporate partner of the Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne, Switzerland, and reportedly donated nearly US $400,000 towards its construction and over US $50,000 for running costs.

5. The specific museums and institutions tobacco companies donate to may be strategic.

Under-funding of the arts is a problem in big cities and small towns all around the world. Yet, it seems many of the industry’s sponsorships go to organizations in tobacco-growing regions, such as Altria’s multiple sponsorships in tobacco-growing Virginia, U.S.A., or in capital cities such as Washington D.C. or London, in close proximity to policymakers.

6. Arts sponsorship can be a way to skirt advertising and sponsorship bans.

In countries that ban tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, tobacco companies can still get their names in front of the public when they’re etched into a wall or listed on a public-facing list of donors.

7. Tobacco companies gain positive publicity when museums publicly thank them.

The British Museum, for example, explicitly thanked Japan Tobacco International (JTI), whose Japanese Acquisition Fund helped the museum add 600 pieces to its collection. A museum spokesperson said: “JTI have supported the museum since 2010 and we are grateful to JTI for their long-term partnership.” This public praise, given without the context of the harm JTI’s products cause, helps re-normalize the company and its products.

8. Arts sponsorship allows tobacco companies to align their novel products with exciting, progressive initiatives…

Many of the projects Big Tobacco selects for sponsorship represent innovative, exciting developments in the arts. Attaching their company or product branding to these projects can give the illusion their addictive novel products are also innovative and exciting. Recent allegations that tobacco companies used social media influencers to portray their e-cigarettes, nicotine pouches and heated tobacco products as upscale lifestyle products geared at young, glamorous people suggest this is a corporate marketing strategy to hook a young, forward-thinking generation on novel products.

9. …While also advertising their core business: cigarettes.

As one of five sponsors of the 2017 Venice Biennale, an arts exhibition in Italy, JTI gave out souvenir ashtrays.

10. Tobacco companies can donate in one country, but experience global benefits.

JTI funds the Japan Foundation, an organization that promotes the arts and cultural exchange around the world. This means that when the Foundation funds an arts initiative, JTI’s name can be advertised globally. For example, in 2017, the company funded a Japanese dance company’s visit to Romania as part of an event called “JTI Encounters.”

To protect their reputation and avoid being complicit in Big Tobacco’s reputation laundering, institutions should refuse tobacco industry sponsorship. Arts associations should also consider developing a model policy that institutions and organizations can look to for guidance when assessing whether to accept money from a tobacco-linked group. And finally, patrons can help document cases of arts sponsorship by reporting them to STOP.

Tobacco industry influence isn’t always obvious, and doesn’t always seem harmful at face value. But tobacco industry sponsorship of the arts ultimately serves one goal: to ensure tobacco companies can continue profiting off of products that kill millions every year.