Jamaica: United Way charity under pressure over tobacco industry links

Tobacco industry corporate philanthropy and social responsibility has been under the international spotlight recently with the revelation that the American Red Cross continues to accept tobacco industry donations, despite concerns of the International Red Cross that US Red Cross risks damaging the global reputation of the network. Accepting tobacco industry donations is particularly problematic for charitable organisations that work to improve public health, given tobacco industry profitability is only possible at the expense of the health – and lives – of the industry’s best customers.

Barbara McGaw of the Jamaica Coalition for Tobacco Control and Deborah Chen of the Heart Foundation of Jamaica report of a charitable organisation accepting tobacco industry funds, causing a split in the charity sector in Jamaica:

United Way of Jamaica (UWJ) is a key charitable organisation in Jamaica. Through its umbrella group, the Council of Voluntary Social Services (CVSS), it has membership of all of the Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) in the country, including health-related NGOs such as the Heart Foundation of Jamaica, the Jamaica Cancer Society and the Diabetes Association of Jamaica. UWJ and CVSS are sister organisations; their offices, secretariat and CEO are shared, and they have 4 board members in common. United Way Jamaica provides funding for a range of CVSS member organisation projects.

At a function to celebrate the 29th National Builders Awards Ceremony of UWJ in September 2014, Carreras Limited (a subsidiary of BAT) was lauded as UWJ highest corporate donor for 2013. Jamaica’s Minister of Industry, Investment and Commerce, who was a guest speaker at the function, presented the award. The Minister’s involvement contravenes Article 5.3 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the guidelines of which state that Parties “should not endorse, support, form partnerships with or participate in activities of the tobacco industry described as socially responsible”. The Jamaica Coalition for Tobacco Control (JCTC) wrote to the Minister about the issue; according to his response, the event invitation did not indicate that he would be presenting awards. However, he acknowledged that his role in presenting to Carreras would not be in keeping with the spirit of Article 5.3 of the FCTC.

Against this background, in September 2014, the JCTC wrote to the Chairman of UWJ and suggested that the organisation cease accepting funds from the tobacco industry. Despite further correspondence from the JCTC and the Heart Foundation of Jamaica, the only response received was “We acknowledge receipt of your letter dated September 24, 2014 in which you have raised concerns regarding United Way accepting funds from the tobacco industry. The matter has been brought to the attention of our Board and your concerns have been noted.”

The Heart Foundation also wrote to the Chair of CVSS. Although a more positive response was received stating that consideration could be given to reviewing the criteria for accepting funds at UWJ, to date there has been no change in policy. It is noteworthy that at a celebratory function held in January 2015 by Carreras Ltd (BAT) to honour its CEO for being awarded  “Top CEO for 2014”  by Business Suite magazine , the Chairman of UWJ was present and gave the vote of thanks at the function.

The UWJ’s mission on its website is “to improve lives by mobilizing the caring power of communities to advance the common good”. The website further states that “The United Way of Jamaica envisions a society where individuals and families achieve their human potential through education, financial stability and healthy living”. Accepting funds from the tobacco industry is not in keeping with United Way’s vision. Despite this, the United Way has accepted funding from the tobacco industry in other countries. It seems that there is no policy against accepting donations from this source. Altria’s 2012 reporting of Recipients of Charitable Contributions from Altria Family of Companies (USA), listed 11 United Way individual organizations that benefitted from donations. Total donations to charitable institutions reported were US$40.8 million.

The Heart Foundation of Jamaica has been a member of CVSS for over 40 years. It has previously written about the problem of United Way accepting donations (see herehere and here). In view of the current situation, the Heart Foundation of Jamaica has suspended its membership as of April 30, 2015. The Heart Foundation of Jamaica hopes that one day there will be a review in the UWJ/CVSS policy such that the HFJ can reinstate its membership. The matter of United Way accepting funds from the tobacco industry globally is an issue which deserves further investigation and exposure.