VCU plans to ban tobacco but keep Altria partnership

Altria is the parent company of Philip Morris USA and 35% of the e-cigarette maker Juul. Photo by Gessler Santos-Lopez

Adrian Teran-Tapia, Capital News Service

VCU is considering a systemwide ban on cigarettes and other nicotine products — but the school will continue its partnership with Altria, one of the world’s biggest tobacco producers.

VCU officials finished taking public comments April 12 on the proposal to prohibit smoking, vaping and any other use of tobacco products on property or vehicles owned by the university. Under the plan, VCU would allow smoking only in designated outdoor areas.

The proposal now goes to the University Council and then to the VCU President’s Cabinet for review. If approved, it would take effect July 1.

Although a ban on tobacco products has been in place at VCU Medical Center since 2010, outdoor smoking is currently allowed on the Monroe Park Campus.

The proposal to prohibit nicotine products on all university properties has been in the works since last fall, said university spokesperson Carolyn Conlon.

As health providers, the proposed policy is written to align with our values and is about creating an environment that is free of all known health hazards,” Conlon said.

Under the policy, VCU would provide education and smoking cessation programs for students, faculty and staff.

Altria, headquartered in Henrico County, has a net worth of more than $100 billion, according to the company’s annual report. It is the parent company of Philip Morris USA, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co. and John Middleton Co., which makes cigars and pipe tobacco. Altria also owns 35 percent of the e-cigarette maker Juul.

For years, the tobacco giant has been the biggest corporate entity in Richmond and the biggest corporate donor to VCU. According to VCU donor relations spokesperson Samantha Marrs, VCU has accepted more than $2.5 million in donations from Altria since 2016. The contributions include:

VCU will continue its relationship with Altria, which has been “very beneficial to a number of areas in the university,” Marrs said. Not only has Altria made substantial financial contributions to the university, but the conglomerate is also one of the top recruiters at VCU, employing hundreds of alumni, according to Marrs.

Marrs does not believe the policy banning smoking at VCU will have any effect on the partnership between the corporation and university. She said Altria will continue to provide scholarships and other support for VCU students.

“I think Altria is absolutely committed to being a socially responsible corporate partner in Richmond,” Marrs said. “And they’re a very valuable partner to the School of Education, Engineering, Business and Department of Chemistry. They’ve made things happen by funding students to finish college.”

In explaining the policy, VCU officials pointed to the health risks of tobacco use and the dangers of secondhand smoke.

“In addition, cigarette butts are the most littered item in the world and cost the university money to clean up,” they said. “Smoke and tobacco-free campus policies also significantly reduce campus fires.”

The ban would not apply to government-approved smoking cessation products like nicotine patches or nicotine gum.

The American Cancer Society and CVS Health Foundation awarded VCU $20,000 in grants last month to promote tobacco-free campus initiatives.

VCU also will host the Virginia Tobacco-Free Higher Education Summit on April 23. The daylong meeting, sponsored by the VCU Massey Cancer Center and the University of Virginia Cancer Center, “seeks to bring together university champions to end tobacco use among college and university students, staff and faculty in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

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