Activists Claim Eco-friendly Cigarette Ads Are “Greenwash”

Everyone knows cigarettes are bad for your health, but can cigarettes actually be good for the environment? Anti-tobacco activists don’t think so: after running ads for its line of “eco-friendly” organic cigarettes, Reynolds American is now being accused of greenwashing consumers. Anti-tobacco activists claim that the tobacco company is using words like “organic” and “eco-friendly” to deceive consumers into buying cigarettes.

The ads are currently found in magazines such as Esquire, Elle, Lucky, and Marie Claire. Mostly women’s magazines, these ads continue to support activists’ claims that tobacco companies have a long history of enticing women and children to take up smoking. And by featuring ads with the words “eco-friendly” and “organic” all over the place, it is not unreasonable for some people to believe these cigarettes are not only healthier for them, but also less harmful to the environment.

The ads describe how American Spirit organic cigarettes are environmentally friendly. Certain phrases are italicized or emphasized, such as “earth-friendly”, “organic”, “100% recycled”, and “lessen our carbon footprint.” On one page of one of the ads, there is a huge seal in the upper right corner of the page, bearing the words “Eco-friendly.”

Activists claim these words paint an inaccurate picture in the minds of consumers. “It’s an egregious ad. It’s trying to greenwash a deadly and addictive product,” says Vince Willmore of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “When you hear a product is eco-friendly, you think it’s better for you.”

However, the ads do contain disclaimers stating “No additives in our tobacco does NOT mean a safer cigarette” and “Organic tobacco does NOT mean a safer cigarette.”

Reynolds American has made numerous efforts for the sake of sustainability and preservation of the environment. Since 1989, the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company (SFNTC), a part of Reynolds American, collaborated with tobacco growers to develop organic tobacco. And in 1991, the company launched Natural American Spirit, the company’s line of organic cigarettes.

The company also uses a substantial amount of wind power to generate electricity for its offices and facilities. In 2009, the EPA named SFNTC a Green Power Partner for its commitment to using alternative energy sources. Currently, it is the only tobacco company with that title.

SFNTC further reduces its carbon dioxide emissions by utilizing hybrid vehicles in their fleet. In 2010, the company switched 98 of its 157 sales vehicles with more fuel efficient hybrid models. The company claims a substantial drop in carbon dioxide emissions and fuel savings equivalent to 13,000 gallons of oil in 2009 alone.

In addition to committing to sustainability, SFNTC has reached out and taken part in conservation efforts. The company has donated $150,000 to the Santa Fe Watershed Association, a group that aims to preserve the Santa Fe River. The company has also adopted a mile long stretch of the river and holds cleanup events twice a year, where employees volunteer to remove trash and plant native trees and plants along the river.

Despite of all these commendable efforts, anti-tobacco activists still believe the ads are deceiving. Says Joel Makower, executive editor of GreenBiz.com, “This is a perfect example of why green marketing is broken.” Even though using the words “organic” and “eco-friendly” in the ads is technically correct, it is rather misleading. Even when used for food and drinks, these labels are largely misinterpreted by the general public as “better for you and the environment” although there is not much scientific evidence supporting that claim.

Perhaps all this bad publicity for Reynolds American is unavoidable and maybe a little unfair because of all the efforts the company puts into sustainability and conserving the environment. As long as they sell cigarettes, whether or not the cigarettes are organic or eco-friendly, tobacco companies will continue to face strong opposition because of the health risks of tobacco.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/valeriebb/2227126139

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