NEW YORK – The American Red Cross risks damaging the reputation of the global Red Cross brand because of its refusal to stop accepting donations from tobacco companies, a top official with the humanitarian network says.
These concerns are prompting the International Red Cross and public health organizations to press the U.S. group to end its longtime policy of taking tobacco money, Reuters has learned.
The International Red Cross, which recently rolled out a global disease prevention program with a strong anti-smoking component, hasn’t accepted tobacco donations since 2008. Most of the group’s 189 national affiliates don’t accept such money either, but the powerful U.S. member does, as do about half a dozen other countries, including Germany, Russia and Vietnam.
While precise figures are not available, the American Red Cross and its U.S. affiliates have received at least $12 million from tobacco companies such as Altria Group, Reynolds American and Philip Morris International since 2001, according to Red Cross tax records and tobacco company press releases and annual reports.
An American Red Cross spokeswoman, Laura Howe, declined to comment on the dispute with its parent body — whose guidelines are not binding on its affiliates — but said the Red Cross is happy to accept any funds that support its efforts to assist disaster victims. She also declined to say how much it received from each company.
International Red Cross officials say that by accepting the donations, the U.S. group risks damaging not only its own reputation but that of the entire global humanitarian network. Some public health advocates agree, saying there is a contradiction between the Red Cross’s mandate to aid the vulnerable and its acceptance of money from an industry whose product may cause death.
Matthias Schmale, under secretary general for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said officials have talked with American Red Cross officials and asked them to drop the tobacco funding. “We have been very clear about the potential reputational damage not just for them but for all of us,” Schmale said in a telephone interview from Geneva. “So far we have not taken the route of public condemnation. We want to respect that they are an important supporter of ours.”
He said the parent body would continue “to put pressure” on the American Red Cross to change its policy, although he would not say what form that pressure would take.
Despite the controversy, there has been little public debate about the donations. And the dispute between the American Red Cross and its parent body has not been reported until now.
How the dispute is resolved could be felt beyond the American Red Cross. Anti-tobacco activists hope that if the U.S. group bows to pressure, it could influence other nonprofits to reject millions of dollars in donations.
John Stewart of Corporate Accountability International, a watchdog group, said if the American Red Cross stopped accepting tobacco money it would undercut the tobacco industry’s global public relations strategy to gloss over its “tarnished image.”
Critics argue that by accepting donations from tobacco interests, the organization, one of the largest charities in the United States with 2013 revenue of $3.4 billion, is muddying its public health mission while providing the tobacco industry with a public-relations boost.
Major U.S. and European tobacco companies including Reynolds American, Altria and Lorillard as well as Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco PLC acknowledged the donations and said they were among some of the millions of dollars they give away.
“When there are important disasters, and people have significant needs, that is the right thing for corporations to do,” said Altria spokesman David Sylvia.