Posts Tagged ‘Shareholder Meeting’
Altria’s Annual Shareholders Meeting in Richmond, Virginia: Retirement provides no change in the company’s conduct
Thursday, June 7th, 2012
By Edward L. Sweda, Jr.
In January 2012, Altria Group, Inc. announced that CEO Michael E. Szymanczyk would retire after the completion of the company’s Annual Shareholders Meeting in Richmond, Virginia on May 17. Mr. Szymancyk worked for the company in various capacities for 23 years. Michael J. Barrington was named to succeed him as Chairman and CEO, while Dave Beran was selected to take over as President and Chief Operating Officer .
While Mr. Szymancyk can take advantage of generous compensation – a pay package valued at $10.2 million for fiscal year 2011 for his work as the CEO of America’s largest cigarette manufacturer, there are many others who are not in a position to enjoy retirement. These include the hundreds of thousands of Americans who annually die prematurely due to smoking-caused diseases, as well as from exposure to secondhand smoke.
As usual, the biggest portion of time at the Annual Shareholders Meeting was devoted to the CEO’s business report on the prior year. During this presentation, Szymanczyk said that Altria had “successfully managed” the external challenges of litigation.
However, during the question-and-answer session, this author noted that, in late March 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court had declined to consider Altria’s appeal in the Campbell case and Reynolds American’s appeal in the Martin case. In its petition for certiorari filed in December 2011, the attorneys for Reynolds American alleged that “in their conduct of Engle Progeny litigation, the Florida state courts are engaged in serial due process violations that threaten the defendants [including Altria] with literally billions of dollars of liability.” The attorneys also warned that if the U.S. Supreme Court did not provide “prompt review,” then “the massive liability imposed on the Engle defendants – which currently stands at over $375 million in adverse judgments – will likewise steadily increase as Engle progeny trials continue with no end in sight.” So, this doomsday scenario outlined by tobacco company attorneys is on track to occur, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the appeal. Therefore, I asked Mr. Szymanczyk: “Why shouldn’t investors and shareholders rely on what tobacco company lawyers said to the U.S. Supreme Court, rather than what you are telling us today?”
In response, Mr. Szymanczyk referred the audience (which included people listening to a webcast of the meeting) to the company’s latest 10-Q report, which contains 32 pages of information on tobacco litigation.
Returning to the theme of retirement, Anne Morrow Donley, a Virginia shareholder, addressed CEO Szymanczyk directly. “With your retirement, I’m sure you look to your legacy. Certainly you and the company have a passion for success. I’m not sure about satisfying your customers’ and their preferences unless they all have a death wish,” she said. “One of every two of your tobacco customers dies from using your tobacco products, often from a debilitating illness. At some point in the future, you and the company may indeed be charged with crimes against humanity – I look forward to that,” she concluded.
After the question-and-answer session, the next order of business was the consideration of a shareholder resolution, submitted by the Province of St. Joseph of the Capuchin Order in Milwaukee. The proposal, which dealt with Altria’s lobbying activities, called for on the Board of Directors to prepare a report that would disclose, on an annual basis:
- “Company policy and procedures governing the lobbying of legislators and regulators, including that done on our company’s behalf by trade associations. The disclosure should include both direct and indirect lobbying and grassroots lobbying communications.
- A listing of payments (both direct and indirect, including payments to trade associations) used for direct lobbying as well as grassroots lobbying communications, including the amount of the payment and the recipient.
- Membership in and payments to any tax-exempt organization that writes and endorses model legislation.
- Description of the decision making process and oversight by the management and Board for
- Direct and indirect lobbying contribution or expenditure; and
- Payment for grassroots lobbying expenditure.”
The key goal of the resolution is transparency. Father Michael Crosby, a Capuchin Franciscan, endorsed the proposal, noting that his order and “eight other members of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility have submitted the resolution that has received the support of one of the biggest institutional advisor groups in the United States. ISS, Institutional Shareholder Services. When they analyzed what we are asking for, and what the company’s response is, they said that it was not adequate enough to support the company, so they are basically supporting us.”
Father Crosby continued, contending that Altria has a “culture of connivance.” Citing the election battle in California over Proposition 29, a proposition would, for the first time in 14 years, raise the state cigarette excise tax by $1 per pack to help fund cancer research. Father Crosby noted that Altria “has contributed two thirds of the $40 million trying to undermine” support for the proposition. On the “main web site of this group in California that is against” Proposition 29, it says it is supported by small business. “There is no mention that two thirds of all the money going into this is from a big business like” Altria, Father Crosby said. [Initial reports on the June 5, 2012 vote in California show a very narrow defeat for the proposition, by a margin of 50.8% against versus 49.2% in favor].
Father Crosby also condemned Altria’s support for the American Legislative Exchange Council, noting that the company has a seat on ALEC’s board of directors. “It isn’t democracy. It’s corpocracy, and it’s hypocrisy when there is this connivance,” Father Crosby told the audience.
In seconding the proposal, this author noted that “this modest shareholder proposal comes at a time of unprecedented public concern and pushback about the excessively pervasive and powerful influence that corporations have in the American political system. In the wake of the January 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case,… in which right-wing judicial activism has transformed the landscape of the American electoral process, certainly this resolution addresses a subject of utmost importance.”
I also noted that Altria had donated $50,000 to ALEC’s annual meeting for drafting legislation for Florida and other states that adopted the so-called “Stand Your Ground” legislation which has garnered international attention after the February 2012 fatal shooting of an unarmed 17-year-old, Trayvon Martin. “ Altria’s association with ALEC should have been disclosed to shareholders” long before now, I concluded.
In its opposition to the proposal, Altria claimed that it “provides extensive information on its website describing its public policy activities” and that the “additional report sought by this proposal is not necessary and would not provide meaningful additional insight into the Company’s activities in this area.”
The proposal was defeated with a preliminary result of 20.5% of shares in favor, with 79.5% of shares opposed.
So, after the meeting, Michael Szymanczyk did indeed retire as Altria’s CEO. His successor is expected to proceed with business as usual – as deadly as that business will be for untold millions of people.
Reynolds American Inc. in 2012: “Progress” in tobacco litigation is alleged five weeks after U.S. Supreme Court leaves the company with “massive liability…with no end in sight.”
Friday, May 25th, 2012
By Edward L. Sweda, Jr.
Three key issues were taken up at the 2012 Reynolds American Inc. (RAI) Annual Shareholders Meeting in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on May 3rd.
First, the issue drawing the most public attention was the company’s dealings with groups representing farm workers who toil under dangerous conditions and provide the tobacco that brings prosperity to the company and its key executives. At least 20 individuals who attended the meeting dominated the question-and-answer session, urging the company to meet directly with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) after many years of failing to achieve such a meeting. Reynolds American CEO Daniel M. Delen publicly pledged that he would be willing to participate in such a meeting. Dozens of protestors outside the building underscored the message of the supporters of the human rights of tobacco farm workers.
Delen also touted an April 2012 “multilateral” meeting in Raleigh as a first step in addressing issues of inadequate worker safety in the tobacco fields of North Carolina. [See Oxfam America’s report: “A State of Fear: Human Rights Abuses in North Carolina’s Tobacco Industry”]
A second issue was contained in the shareholder resolution that called on RAI to establish a special ethics committee to examine the company’s marketing practices. The purpose of this special committee is “to ensure shareholders that its products and product promotions, as far as is possible, not undermine efforts of governments at any level to adopt laws and practices that will free Americans from the negative consequences of use of our tobacco products.”
In addition to commenting on the text of the resolution, Father Michael Crosby denounced RAI’s heavy-handed campaign to oppose California’s Proposition 29, which would raise that state’s cigarette excise tax by $1 per pack and increase taxes on cigars and pipe tobacco from 31.73 percent to 54.89 percent. If passed by the voters, the proposal would raise about $735 million annually, most of which would go toward cancer research.
Fr. Crosby also cited the company’s support of the right-wing political organization ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, whose stealth activities have come under increased scrutiny following public disclosures of ALEC’s drafting of and advocacy for Florida “Stand Your Ground” law and several states’ anti-immigrant legislation.
The shareholder resolution was defeated, according to the preliminary tally reported at the meeting, with 6.4 million shares in favor, 418 million shares opposed and 6.3 shares abstaining.
The third key issue was litigation, specifically RAI’s “litigation progress” – or lack thereof – in dealing with the Engle Progeny cases in Florida. During the business presentation by Mr. Delen, RAI’s CEO stated that, since 2010, RAI had been “successful” in two-thirds of the Engle Progeny trials. Such “successes” included not only defense verdicts but also – for the first time publicy stated in this author’s memory at any tobacco company’s shareholders meeting – mistrials (such as when a jury is deadlocked without being able to reach a verdict).
In 2009, a Florida jury awarded $3.3 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages against Reynolds American in a case involving the death of Benny Ray Martin, the husband of Mathilde Martin. Her case is one of thousands of “Engle Progeny” lawsuits in Florida, cases that followed the landmark 2006 ruling by the Florida Supreme court in Engle v. Liggett Group, Inc., 945 So. 2d 1246 (Fla. 2006). After losing on appeal at every stage in the Florida’s state court system, RAI filed a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court of the United States.
In arguing in December 2011 that its petition for a writ of certiorari should be granted, Reynolds’ attorneys (Paul D. Clement of Bancroft PLLC, Gregory G. Katsas of Jones Day and Eric E. Murphy of Jones Day) claimed that in “their conduct of Engle progeny litigation, the Florida state courts are engaged in serial due-process violations that threaten the defendants with literally billions of dollars of liability.” (emphasis added) Moreover, “the massive liability imposed on the Engle defendants – which currently stands at over $375 million in adverse judgments – will… steadily increase as Engle progeny trials continue with no end in sight.” (emphasis added).
RAI’s attorneys’ description of doomsday for the company became reality on March 26, 2012 when the Supreme Court announced that it would not consider RAI’s appeal in the Martin case. As I described at the time, “At long last, Reynolds American and the other major tobacco companies will be held accountable for their massive and reprehensible misconduct that harmed thousands of Florida smokers. As Reynolds’ own lawyers have concluded, denial of its cert petition is a very big deal indeed.”
Citing the question I asked at the 2011 Reynolds American Shareholders Meeting about the Martin case, the response I received from Mark Holton, RAI’s Executive Vice President and General Counsel, that he was “confident that the Engle process violates due process” and that the company’s legal arguments were strong and would ultimately prevail, and the fact that on March 26, 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider RAI’s appeal of the $28 million verdict, this RAI shareholder from Massachusetts asked the following question:
“Given how Mr. Holton got it wrong last year about this important case, why shouldn’t investors and shareholders be skeptical when they hear pronouncements by Reynolds American management about tobacco litigation?”
In response, Mr. Holton acknowledged what the Supreme Court had done regarding the Martin case, but cited what he called “encouraging” developments with two appeals of plaintiff verdicts in the state court system in Florida. This included a March 30th ruling by Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal affirming a $2.5 million wrongful death verdict against Reynolds American and Philip Morris USA. In that appeal of the Douglas case, the Court of Appeal also certified the following question to the Supreme Court of Florida: “Does accepting as res judicata the eight Phase I findings approved in Engle v. Liggett Group, Inc., 945 So. 2d 1246 (Fla. 2006) violate the tobacco companies’ due process rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution?”
Mr. Holton notably did not address the doomsday scenario outlined by his company’s attorneys who filed the writ for certiorari. So, in a span of just five months, this RAI shareholder received from the company diametrically polar opposite predictions concerning the future of tobacco litigation, depending on which side of the Reynolds American corporate mouth was talking.
Thursday, May 26th, 2011By Edward L. Sweda, Jr., Senior Attorney
RICHMOND, VA. – Just eight days before the Altria Group, Inc. 2011 Annual Shareholders Meeting in this historic city, Altria Group’s former Chief Executive Officer, Louis Camilleri, complicated matters for his successor. At the Philip Morris International Annual Shareholders Meeting in New York City on May 11, 2011, Camilleri answered a question from a shareholder who is also a nurse who has treated many smokers with serious diseases. While admitting that smoking is addictive, Camilleri added the comment that “it is not that hard to quit” using tobacco products. That comment made international headlines after the Associated Press reported it.
So, when Altria Group’s Szymanczyk gave management’s report at the meeting in Richmond on May 19th, he specifically, on page 10 of his prepared remarks stated: “Because tobacco use is addictive and it can be very difficult to quit, our tobacco companies help connect adult tobacco consumers who have decided to quit with cessation information from public health authorities.”
During the question and answer session, shareholder Rev. Michael Crosby of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility and I both pressed Szymanczyk to state whether, as Altria Group’s CEO, he disagreed with Camilleri’s comment and, if so, why. Refusing to do so, he stated that “I would simply say that what I said is on our website. There is nothing new here.” The juxtaposition between the public statements of two tobacco executives just six days apart was the central focus of the Richmond Times-Dispatch article on the meeting.
I also pressed Szymanczyk on the issue of the ongoing Engle Progeny trials taking place in Florida. Noting that 30 out of 43 (now, as this report is written, 32 out of 46) such trials resulting in verdicts have seen jurors return plaintiff verdicts, I asked whether Altria Group, for the sake of its shareholders, would abandon its no-settlement policy regarding the thousands of Engle Progeny cases remaining throughout Florida. His response was simply to refer shareholders to the company’s 10Q form, which restates its standard policy of refusing to settle these cases.
Virginia shareholder Anne Morrow Donley, citing studies from March 2011 which showed that a fetus subjected to secondhand smoke is at a higher risk of stillbirth, lower birth weight and lower birth length , asked Szymanczyk whether he would publicly advise smokers not to smoke around women of child-bearing age. His response was to acknowledge that pregnant women should not be exposed to secondhand smoke, but he refused to broaden that recommendation to include women of child-bearing age.
Cathy Rowan, representing shareholder Trinity Group, noted Altria Group’s willingness to address concerns about implementing internally agreed upon code upholding the human rights of tobacco farm workers and about ensuring that the company’s suppliers are enforcing those rules. Altria Group’s cooperation with shareholders following a 2009 vote of shareholders where 25% supported a resolution to protect the human rights of farm workers stands in contrast to the rigid opposition by the management of Reynolds American, Inc. to similarly worded resolutions.
In his prepared remarks, Szymanczyk also bragged about Altria Group’s donations to various charitable and civic organizations, including the Boys and Girls Clubs, 4H, as well as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Kennedy center and the National gallery of Art. He boasted that “Altria made nearly $50 million in cash and in-kind corporate contributions to non-profit organizations” in 2010, without noting that the $50 million figure represented just 0.205% of the company’s net revenues ($24.363 billion) in 2010.
A shareholder resolution was offered, calling on the Board of Directors to move “to ensure that Altria stops the production of any of its tobacco products with characterizing flavoring added, as well as their distribution and marketing, unless and until it can be proven by independent and evidence-based research that such added characterizing flavors do not contribute significantly to youth initiation of tobacco use.” That resolution was defeated, with 97.5% of shares voting NO, with 2.5% voting YES.
Tuesday, May 17th, 2011
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — On Thursday, May 5, 2011, I made my way to this historic city via the Winston-Salem Express. Friday morning at 9:00 A.M. sharp was the scheduled start of the 2011 Annual Meeting of Shareholders of tobacco giant Reynolds American, Inc. (RAI).
Beautiful sunny skies greeted everyone in Winston-Salem on Friday morning. Having just walked into the lair, i.e. RAI’s corporate headquarters, I noticed an intriguing sign by the registration desk: “As a courtesy to non-smoking guests, the Annual Meeting will be a non-smoking event.” Not in any way a matter of health but, rather, a “courtesy.”
A Corporate Shift?
The 2011 Annual Shareholders Meeting of Reynolds American, Inc. (RAI) took place on a day when Daniel Delen, who took over as chief executive and president of the company in March, made what was billed as a major pronouncement. Noting the findings of a major study entitled “A State of Fear: Human Rights Abuses in North Carolina’s Tobacco Industry,” by Oxfam America and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO (FLOC) of the conditions under which tobacco farm workers in North Carolina do their work in the fields, Mr. Delen proposed that a multi-party council be formed to address these labor issues. Additionally, he publicly pledged to use an independent, third-party monitor to analyze the issue of the conditions under which these workers labor at U.S.-based farms that supply essential product to RAI.
A front-page article in the May 7, 2011 edition of the Winston-Salem Journal, entitled “Reynolds American Takes Step,” quoted Rev. Michael Crosby of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility: “I see a glimmer of hope on an issue we have been raising for a number of years. For your willingness to participate with stakeholders, I sprinkle holy water on you. Yet, because these discussions are going on at the highest levels with Altria and Philip Morris International, I would urge you to take the same level here.”
Mr. Delen’s promises, which will be put to the test in the upcoming weeks and months, stand in contrast to the public position of previous C.E.O. Susan Ivey, who insisted that RAI had no responsibility to take steps to improve working conditions of farm workers who labor under often unsafe working conditions on farms run by Reynolds’ suppliers.
Response to Litigation – More of the Same
However, on the litigation front, RAI management is as rigid as ever. During the question and answer session, to which RAI allotted all of 25 minutes – fully ten minutes more than at the 2010 Annual Shareholders Meeting – I addressed the major legal problems that R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. is facing in the Engle Progeny litigation in Florida. Shareholders are allowed up to two minutes to ask a question (a video board at the front of the meeting room featured a large numeric countdown from “2:00” once a shareholder began to speak); I mentioned that since February 2009, there have been 43 Engle Progeny trials that have reached a verdict and that 30 out of those 43 have been plaintiff verdicts. Just a week before the shareholders meeting, a jury in Jacksonville, where a disproportionately large number of the remaining 8,000 to 9,000 lawsuits yet to be tried are located, hit RAI with a $17 million punitive damages award. Furthermore, the company is appealing its multi-million dollar loss in the Martin case and must prevail in an uphill climb to convince the Florida Supreme Court to reverse its own 2006 landmark ruling in the Engle class-action case.
I concluded my remarks by asking whether the company, for the good of its shareholders, would move away from its current policy of refusing to settle these Engle Progeny cases.
Mark Holton, RAI’s Executive Vice President and General Counsel, responded by reiterating the company’s stated opposition to settling any of these cases and said that he was “confident that the Engle process violates due process” and that the company’s legal arguments are strong and would ultimately prevail. Though no follow-up questions are allowed, I commented that “the risk [for the company] is there.”
Two important shareholder resolutions called on the company to address concerns regarding tobacco flavoring and to create human rights protocols for the company and its suppliers.
Noting that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has found that the smoking of flavored cigarettes is more popular among youth than among adults, the proponents offered this resolution “that, because youth initiation of tobacco products is influenced by the flavoring, shareholders request that, within six months of Reynolds American Inc.’s annual meeting, the Board of Directors move to ensure that RAI stops the production of any of its tobacco products with such flavoring added, as well as their distribution and their marketing, unless and until it can be proven by independent and evidence-based research that such added flavors do not contribute to youth initiation of tobacco use.” Father Michael Crosby introduced the resolution while Anne Morrow Donley of Virginia seconded it (their remarks were limited to two minutes each).
RAI management, of course, opposed the resolution, falling back on the contention that the “flavorings utilized on our operating companies’ tobacco products are legally permitted.” The resolution was defeated with 3 million shares being voted “Yes” with 397 million “No.”
A major threat to the health of tobacco farm workers is Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS), which occurs when the skin absorbs nicotine after touching the tobacco plants. Another significant concern regarding Reynolds American, Inc. is that it receives leaf from Malawi, a country in which child labor in tobacco fields takes place.
This resolution stated that “shareholders request Reynolds American Tobacco Inc. Board of Directors to commit itself to create effective procedures to implement protocols ensuring basic worker rights consistent with internationally agreed-upon human rights conventions in the countries which supply its tobacco and to find ways to ensure, through truly independent monitoring, that its varied suppliers are enforcing these protocols as well as all other pertinent laws of the nations in which its suppliers operate.”
Father Crosby introduced the resolution while I seconded it. RAI’s opposition to this resolution attempted to pass off any responsibility on this issue onto the already overburdened regulatory apparatus of state and federal governments in the United States. Management also claimed that “RAI and its operating companies strive to comply with all laws and regulations.” In my allotted two minutes, I noted that, as an individual, I do not “strive to comply with laws, I comply with laws.” I noted that, while there would be serious consequences for me if I failed to comply with laws, there seem to be no consequences for RAI or its suppliers failing to comply with basic laws and regulations governing worker health and safety.
The resolution was defeated, having received 39 million shares voting “Yes”, with 361 million “No.”
Outside the auditorium where the meeting took place, RAI provided shareholders with copies of the company’s publications, one of which is a 33-page brochure entitled “Our Continuing Commitment,” the 2010 Corporate Social responsibility Report. On page 23 of the report, RAI informs its shareholders that “[d]uring the past four years, the American Snuff Co. Charitable Trust has contributed $40,000 to a campaign by Methodist Healthcare Foundation to build a 30-patient hospice residence for terminally ill people of all ages…” ,
I was encouraged to see signs such as this one on the front door of the hotel in which I was staying in Winston-Salem.
As mentioned above, the shareholders meeting was entirely smoke-free.
To cap off my trip to North Carolina, on Friday night I attended a South Atlantic League baseball game between the Hickory Crawdads and the host Greensboro Grasshoppers. The game, won by Hickory 7-2, was played at NewBridge Bank Park, a smoke-free park.
Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010
By Edward L. Sweda, Jr., Senior Attorney- PHAI
On May 20, 2010, the Commonwealth of Virginia executed Darick Demorris Walker, who had been convicted of murdering Stanley Beale in 1996 and Clarence Elwood Threat in 1997. Also on May 20, 2010, the Altria Group, Inc. Annual Shareholders Meeting took place in Richmond, Virginia.
During the meeting’s question and answer session, shareholder Anne Morrow Donley asked chairman and chief executive officer, Michael E. Szymanczyk the following question: “Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court made a quite controversial decision, noting that essentially corporations are like people. Therefore, fair is fair. There’s a death penalty when murder is committed, so it seems only fair that there should be a corporate death penalty for this company because it admits that it is making a product that kills people. A corporate death penalty could require Altria to apologize for its weapons of mass destruction and could require Altria to cease and desist from the destruction of life. So my question is, since the company itself has admitted in legal proceedings that it makes products which kill people, and courts in various states have upheld challenges from the company saying that Altria is legally responsible for the deaths of customers, therefore, why should not Philip Morris, or Altria itself, not be subject to the death penalty?”
His response was to fall back on the tired refrain that cigarettes are a “legal product” and that people, aware of smoking’s risks, still choose to do so.
Having noted that Philip Morris had lost jury verdicts in seven “Engle Progeny” cases during a 15-month span, Tobacco Products Liability Project Senior Attorney Edward L. Sweda, Jr. asked Mr. Szymanczyk when his company will change its policy of refusing to settle the “Engle Progeny” cases, which number approximately 9500. His response was to declare that Altria is “bullish” about the long-term prospects of tobacco litigation in the United States. He said this even though in recent years, when state legislatures considered bills to put an artificial cap on total awards against tobacco companies in product liability cases, company lobbyists have supported such bills by portraying the company as risking bankruptcy if the caps were not imposed. Mr. Szymanczyk’s “bullish” comment became the headline in the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s account of the meeting.
ALTRIA’S ATTEMPT TO REMOVE CERTAIN PANELISTS FROM A SCIENTIFIC PANEL DESIGNED TO ADVISE THE U.S. FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION (FDA)
During his business presentation just prior to the question and answer session, Mr. Szymanczyk cited the company’s “Mission,” which includes a pledge that it will “actively participate in resolving societal concerns that are relevant to our business.” Shareholder Rev. Michael Crosby of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, noted that, according to a report in late April in the Wall Street Journal in March 2010 Altria had attempted to remove four members of an FDA advisory panel because of alleged conflicts of interest. The FDA rebuffed Altria’s attempt to remove those panelists. Fr. Crosby said that such a power play by Altria contradicted that pledge. Mr. Szymanczyk’s response was that the company is “participating in” the FDA’s regulatory process and that “part of participating involves representing shareholder interests.’
There were two shareholder resolutions considered at the 2010 Shareholders Meeting. The first, which called on the company to “commission an independent study and issue a resulting report on the affect of our company’s marketing on the purchasing practices of poor people. Shareholders ask that this report offer ways to alleviate the harm done to innocent children, such as food insecurity, by such adults who smoke. Shareholders ask that this report include recommendations as to whether our Company should continue marketing its products in census tracts with over 50% poverty.” Supporters of this resolution noted that families with at least one smoker spend 2% to 20% of their income on tobacco. In many instances, such spending deprives children of necessities such as food.
Management opposed this resolution, claiming that Philip Morris USA’s “responsible marketing practices, cessation support and the regulatory authority of the United States Food and Drug Administration (‘FDA’) are sufficient to address the concerns raised by this proposal.”
This resolution received 4.3% of the total number of shares and, thus, is not eligible to be refilled for the 2011 Shareholders Meeting.
The second resolution called on the company to create human rights protocols for itself and its suppliers. Noting that Philip Morris USA contracts with suppliers who employ migrant farm workers, the proponents cited the serious problems of Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS). GTS occurs when the skin absorbs nicotine from touching tobacco plant; the illness threatens more than 33 million tobacco farm workers globally. The shareholders supporting this resolution “request the Altria Board of Directors to commit itself to create procedures to implement the internationally agreed-upon core human rights conventions in the countries in which it operates and to find ways to ensure that its suppliers are enforcing these as well.”
Management opposed the resolution, claiming that there are already sufficient practices and programs in place in the United States that “address farm safety and working conditions.” This resolution received 20.5% support and will therefore be eligible for submission next year.
Report from the Reynolds American, Inc. Annual Shareholders Meeting -– May 7, 2010 – Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010
By Edward L. Sweda, Jr., Senior Attorney – PHAI
NEW RULES REGARDING ADMITTANCE TO THE MEETING.
The Reynolds American Inc. (RAI) Annual Shareholders Meeting took place in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on Friday morning, May 7, 2010. According to a March 22, 2010 “Dear Shareholder” letter from President and CEO Susan M. Ivey, those shareholders who planned to attend the meeting “MUST pre-register for the meeting and request an admittance ticket no later than Wednesday, April 28, 2010.”
However, that letter, which was part of the company’s proxy materials, was not mailed to shareholders unless the shareholder specifically requested that the material be sent. Unfortunately, both I and shareholder Anne Morrow Donley of Virginia GASP missed the deadline for requesting an admission ticket by one day. Strictly adhering to the terms of this new rule, RAI’s Assistant Secretary, Dean E. Tsipis, informed me that the company was “unable” to fulfill my April 29, 2010 request for an admission ticket. “Unwilling” would have been a more accurate adjective.
Similarly, a new attendance rule by RAI kept out Keith T. Barber, a reporter for the Greensboro, North Carolina-based “Yes Weekly.” On April 28, 2010, RAI “announced” – via a release via PR Newswire but not by directly contacting local reporters – that members of the media had to request an admittance ticket by April 30, 2010. Mr. Barber, who arrived at the meeting on May 7, 2010, was barred from the meeting.
Winston-Salem’s taxpayers financially supported the heavy presence by the Winston-Salem Police Department (WSPD) at the Reynolds American meeting. Shortly after the 9:00 A.M. start of the meeting, there were four police officers standing in front of the building while four marked police cruisers were parked near the building’s main entrance. At the side of the building were another two parked police cruisers. As the FLOC demonstration was winding down at about 11:25 A.M., one of the WSPD officers told organizers of the demonstration that Reynolds management would like the demonstrators to leave the front of the building by 11:30 A.M.
The major controversy at the RAI meeting was management’s unwillingness to meet with members of FLOC (Farm Labor Organizing Committee), AFL-CIO. (See this for details of FLOC’s campaign regarding Reynolds American. FLOC has also described desperate conditions in North Carolina’s tobacco fields, noting that nine workers have recently died in the fields, most due to heat stroke.
According to the Winston-Salem Journal, FLOC believes that “it has to be more vocal and demanding to persuade Reynolds to use its clout to pressure its suppliers to improve conditions for the state’s 30,000 tobacco farmworkers.” The company insists that its supplier list is proprietary and has refused to reveal who they are. Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Ministers
Conference of Winston-Salem and Vicinity, said that “We believe it is Reynolds’ role, and under its sphere of influence, to require its suppliers to treat the farm workers with dignity and proper work and living conditions.”
Two of the shareholder resolutions considered at the meeting addressed issue of smoking and health and the company’s conduct. The first resolution was filed by proponents who noted that in 2009 RAI had challenged some provisions of the new law which allows the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate tobacco products, arguing that the law violated the company’s First Amendment rights. RAI also contended that FDA restrictions had limited the company’s ability to “convey ‘truthful information’ about its tobacco products.” Therefore, “shareholders request the RAI Board of Directors to oversee the inclusion in all RAI product advertising, promotion
and marketing (including inserts in tobacco packages themselves) truthful information regarding the devastating health consequences identified with using such products.” The proponents suggested that this truthful information cover the health hazards to smokers from smoking and to nonsmokers from breathing secondhand smoke; the decline in tobacco-related diseases when increased taxes on tobacco are combined with smoking restrictions; and the “human rights violations connected with undocumented workers in the U.S.A. and forced child labor in key ‘developing’ countries who pick tobacco leaf used by RAI.”
Not surprisingly, RAI management opposed the resolution calling on it to provide its customers with truthful information. It claimed that “Our Guiding principles and Beliefs” are sufficient.
The resolution received less than 2 percent of the shares voted and, thus, will not be eligible to be refiled for next year’s Shareholders Meeting.
The next resolution, on Human Rights Protocols for the Company and Its Suppliers, received over 10 percent of the shares voted and will be eligible for refilling for the 2011 meeting. The resolution requests that RAI’s Board of Directors “to commit itself to create effective procedures to implement the internationally agreed-upon human rights conventions in the countries from which it gets its tobacco and to find ways to ensure, through truly independent monitoring, that its varied suppliers are enforcing these as well as pertinent laws of the nations in which its suppliers operate.” The proponents specifically cited the African nation of Malawi, where “countless children are being forced into slave-like situations to provide leaf for RAI products,” and that “forced child labor persists to the degree that the U.S. Department of Labor lists Malawi’s tobacco production as particularly egregious.”
RAI management opposed this resolution as well, claiming that respecting universally recognized human rights “is one of the foundations of how we conduct our businesses.” Nonetheless, RAI opposed the resolution, stating that “we do not believe it is within our sphere of influence to assume the regulatory and enforcement role of the federal, state and local governments” in the United States. Of course, the resolution had not called on the company to assume those roles; rather, the “truly independent monitoring” would be key to ensuring that the suppliers were adhering to these laws in countries such as Malawi. The proponents noted that “RAI cannot dismiss the above problems by saying its suppliers ‘report’ they comply with codes covering farm workers’ basic rights and that no forced child labor takes place in tobacco fields supplying RAI product.” If RAI feels it cannot enforce these basic codes, it could stop doing business with suppliers that abuse workers’ human rights. It has never done so.