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Taking down the Marlboro Man

Kathy Mulvey helped negotiate a treaty that, if ratified, would ban tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship

Kathy Mulvey has attended every annual meeting of Philip Morris USA for the past 10 years, but she's not a shareholder interested in the dividends of the world's most profitable tobacco company. In 1995, she helped unfurl a 200-foot banner with photos of people whose illnesses or deaths were smoking related. She then used her two minutes at the mike to memorialize 11 such victims.


Last year, when Philip Morris's parent company changed its name to Altria, she held a canvas depicting the Marlboro Man as a skeleton wearing a red bandana with the Philip Morris/Altria logo. She stepped to the microphone and noted that despite a 1,712 percent increase in advertising between 1998 and 2000, Philip Morris ranked 59th of 60 companies in a Harris poll on corporate reputations.

Mulvey does not own Altria stock. She borrows the proxies of two convents -- one in Kentucky, another in Texas -- that own a few shares of stock in order to attend annual meetings where the nuns or their fellow activists lodge protests. Once there, Mulvey challenges Altria's "deadly practices."

Mulvey is the executive director of Infact, a 26-year-old Boston nonprofit that targets what it calls corporate abuse. Infact has had a couple of big successes -- notably, the Nestle boycott that brought about reforms in the marketing of infant formula in developing countries, and a boycott of General Electric that forced the industry leader out of the nuclear weapons business.

Today Infact is poised to score its biggest coup: the ratification of the world's first public health treaty. The treaty would ban tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship, meaning Altria would have to do away with its iconic Marlboro Man and stop sponsoring athletic and cultural events in the countries that ratify it. Cigarette brands would no longer appear on billboards, hats, bags, cafe umbrellas, and other merchandise.

After three years of negotiations, 192 countries, including the United States, last May adopted the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in Geneva, a groundbreaking treaty that could change the way tobacco companies do business around the world. Next, at least 40 countries must ratify the treaty for it to become international law; it would take effect in the ratifying countries.

After the world public health community broached the idea of a treaty at a Paris conference in 1994, Infact was one of the first public interest groups to join the cause, mobilizing public support behind it. During the negotiations, Infact provided research on tobacco to developing countries, exposed Big Tobacco's opposition, helped organize demonstrations and rallies, and met with government officials to build support.

"A company like Philip Morris has annual revenues that dwarf the gross domestic product of many countries where it operates," says Mulvey, who has never smoked. "That's why global cooperation is so important."

How did a small group operating out of a loft in the South End take on Big Tobacco? Much of the answer lies with Mulvey, a 37-year-old activist who has the tenacity of a pit bull latched onto an ankle. Mulvey grew up in Andover, where she attended Phillips Academy. At the University of North Carolina, she studied English and French, and upon graduation taught in China. She returned to the Boston area in 1989 to be an organizer for Infact.

The group's mission has become her life: curbing what it calls life-threatening abuses by corporations and increasing their public accountability. Mulvey, who is single and lives in Roslindale, is not an in-your-face firebrand. She uses facts and argument rather than bullhorns and bully pulpits. When she was in China after college, she was swept up in the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy uprising.

"I had been saying I wanted to do social justice work, but I didn't really know what it meant until I saw the risks people took to make changes they believed in. It was very powerful." She also credits growing up in the Unitarian-Universalist church as a spur for her interest in social action.

Patti Lynn, campaign director for Infact, says Mulvey's most valuable attribute is her ability to inspire others that long odds can be overcome. "In 1993," Lynn says, "an international treaty on tobacco control was beyond imagination."

It was that year that a handwritten note from one Philip Morris executive to another said of Infact's Kraft boycott: "This group could be real trouble. We are gearing up to defend." Mulvey smiles. "They hired public relations firms and sent people out to monitor the boycott," she says. "They were trying to make lemonade out of lemons, but it didn't work."

Infact -- shorthand for Infant Formula Action Campaign -- is named after its first project; the name has stuck. The group began in 1977. Today, in an industrial loft divided into cubicles, 10 organizers labor away on projects. There are buttons and bumper stickers on bulletin boards with slogans such as "Shame on Philip Morris" and "Big Business Out of Congress." One wall is filled with e-mails and congratulations that poured in after the successful tobacco negotiations. Infact operates almost entirely from private donations, which range from "a dollar to tens of thousands," Mulvey says.

Mulvey learned the ropes of grass-roots campaigns during the General Electric boycott. "When we started our campaign, General Electric was the leading producer of nuclear weapons components," she says. "They were a hugely powerful lobbying presence. They were influencing our government on issues of war and peace."

So Infact borrowed a page from the civil rights movement, organizing a consumer boycott of everything from GE light bulbs to refrigerators. In particular, the group targeted the company's big-ticket items, such as CT scanners and MRI machines. At the same time they were using life-saving medical devices, doctors and hospitals were supporting a corporation responsible for "releasing radioactive and toxic waste through nuclear weapons production," says Mulvey.

While GE executives met with hospital administrators, Infact was supplying hospitals with research documenting the harm of nuclear weapons. In particular, Infact scoffed at GE's longtime slogan, "We bring good things to life." In the end, many hospitals and doctors refused to buy GE products.

The Infact boycott led to a film, "Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment." Infact was the executive producer of the film, which won the Oscar for short documentary film in 1992 and gave the campaign the visibility it needed. Infact was able to document $75 million in lost sales for GE because of the boycott, and six months later the company announced it was pulling out of the nuclear industry.

Infact next trained its sights on the tobacco industry because of its death toll, which the World Health Organization puts at nearly 5 million a year. Infact had two goals: to stop the addiction of new customers, especially children, and to stop tobacco companies from influencing public policy. Again, Infact employed the boycott -- not just of cigarettes but of any Kraft product (Kraft is also owned by Altria).

"We helped reduce their economic and political interests," Mulvey says. "It's not as acceptable today to take money from tobacco interests." Three years ago, Infact produced another film, "Making A Killing: Philip Morris, Kraft and Global Tobacco Addiction."

When the tobacco treaty was approved, Infact lifted its Kraft boycott. But the tobacco campaign won't be over until 40 countries ratify the treaty, which was the first ever negotiated under the auspices of the World Health Organization. Mulvey notes that the United States has not yet ratified it -- nor does she expect it to. In fact, she says, the US delegation was "obstructionist."

"At the negotiations, the US held out until the last minute," Mulvey says. "It was only forced into voting for it after the other countries did." At the World Health Assembly in Geneva, the team from the US Department of Health and Human Services argued that it was unconstitutional for the government to ban tobacco advertising, citing free speech issues.

Mulvey, who provided backup materials to the developing countries, doesn't buy that argument. "The First Amendment was intended to protect political speech," she says. "It's clear we're allowed to limit commercial speech to protect the public interest. The claim that the Marlboro Man is somehow conveying information to consumers is outrageous."

At the Department of Health and Human Services, a spokesman said the treaty is still under interagency review; next, President Bush must decide whether to sign it and send it on to the Senate for ratification.

Mulvey isn't optimistic about approval from either Bush or the Senate. "We still haven't overcome tobacco's stranglehold on Congress," she says. Before the final round of negotiations, she adds, the US delegation sent faxes to various embassies warning them that health shouldn't interfere with trade. "Our country is essentially saying the financial interests of companies like Philip Morris should take priority over the health of kids," Mulvey says.

Mark Berlind, legislative counsel for Altria, says the corporation supports the treaty in its final form. "We have changed our policies a lot," he says. "We agree that smoking causes cancer, that it is addictive, and that the best thing is to quit." Still, Altria, like the United States, opposes the ban on advertising, at least to adults. And because that part of the treaty would conflict with the US Constitution, it would not be enacted here, even if the treaty is ratified. As for Infact's role, Berlind says: "I wouldn't say anything about them, except that we appear to be in agreement with them on the treaty."

So far five countries have ratified the pact: Norway, Malta, Fiji, the Seychelles, and Sri Lanka. Now, Infact is working to get 35 more countries to follow. Mulvey says she expects the majority of the 192 countries to sign on. "This treaty will save millions of lives and change the way Big Tobacco operates globally," she says. "It is truly a victory for people's health over the profits of giant corporations."

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