Targeting the Young: A Corporate Funder’s Campus Giving to Cut Tobacco Use

In 2014, the pharmacy chain CVS Caremark made big headlines with its decision to ban tobacco sales at every single one of its more than 9,600 stores across the country. In doing so, the company would give up some $2 billion in annual sales, but the big-picture argument was that it would be better for the company in the long run. According to CVS president Larry Menlo, the move would “better position us [CVS] for continued growth in the evolving healthcare marketplace.”

Related: The Surprising Newcomer to the Flagging Fight Against Tobacco

Setting those arguments aside, the company’s charitable arm, the CVS Health Foundation, is campaigning hard to create the country’s first tobacco-free generation. To do so, it’s targeting young people with its Tobacco-Free Generation Campus Initiative, a five-year, $50 million program involving anti-tobacco education and advocacy as well as “health behavior programming.”

Targeting young people is a solid plan. As any former or current smoker will tell you, kicking the habit is monumentally difficult and often requires multiple attempts. And the longer you smoke, the harder it is to quit. They will also tell you that they wish they would never have started smoking in the first place.

Instilling the anti-tobacco mindset is just one of the things CVS Health wants to accomplish with its Tobacco-Free Generation Campus Initiative. The grants are also used to “address critical, unmet needs by supporting efforts to advocate for, establish, and institute smoke- and tobacco-free campus policies.”

Toward those ends, the foundation, along with the American Cancer Society recently awarded a total of $3.6 million in grants to 20 colleges and universities across the United States as part of the initiative. And there are more grants where those came from. Over the next three years, grants will go out to at least another 100 campuses with the greatest need to curb smoking. The money will help the schools adopt and implement policies to achieve 100 percent smoke-free campuses. 

While the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan snagged grants, most of the money went to lower profile schools like East Carolina University and Bowling Green State University in Ohio. These days, smoking closely tracks with class lines, and it's not the kids at the most privileged schools who are most likely to be huddling with a cigarette during study breaks. 

Related: Is Smoking Cessation Giving Coming Back Around?

Anti-tobacco sentiment in the United States continues to grow. In 1965, around 42 percent of American adults smoked cigarettes. By 1990, that number had declined to 25.5 percent. Now, the percentage of adults in the U.S. that smoke is around 15 percent, a significant decline. However, public health officials are concerned those numbers could soon backslide given the increase in the number of young people using e-cigarettes or “vaping.” Whether the oil used in the vapor pens contains nicotine or not, officials’ big fear is that young people who vape could eventually transition to cigarettes.

Irrespective of the arguments for or against vapor pens, smoking and tobacco use remains a serious public health concern. But not a whole lot of funders are giving to smoking cessation efforts—and the ones who do tend to fund programs outside the United States, where the biggest health toll is being felt. 

Stanford Medicine reported in 2012 that over half of men across 14 developing countries were tobacco users and women were beginning to smoke at a younger age. The big picture, according to the WHO, is that tobacco use will cause over 8 million deaths by 2020, 70 percent of which will occur in developing countries.

These numbers explain why outfits like the Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Gates Foundation have thrown hundreds of millions of dollars behind global anti-tobacco campaigns. Those numbers shake out to over $150 million from Gates since 2007 and over $600 million from Bloomberg.

Anti-tobacco campaigns in the United States don’t garner nearly as much money or attention. But there are at least a few funders that are making this serious public health problem a major priority.

Along with CVS Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation gives in the U.S. not only to help tobacco users quit, but prevent people from picking up the habit in the first place. Some of Bloomberg's anti-smoking money also stays in the U.S.