10/15/2014 05:43 pm ET Updated Oct 15, 2014

School Board Group Decides Working With Big Tobacco Isn't The Best Idea After All

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An education group that represents more than 90,000 local school board members has decided to end its fledgling partnership with a major tobacco company after hearing from tobacco's critics.

On Tuesday, the National School Boards Association announced it would be severing ties with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, which makes Camel and Pall Mall cigarettes. The NSBA had intended to help promote the company’s “Right Decisions, Right Now” education program, which is designed to discourage kids from smoking.

Tom Gentzel, executive director of the NSBA, told The Huffington Post that the partnership had been in the works for months, but it only gained attention earlier this month when R.J. Reynolds announced it in a press release. Much of that attention was negative.

The RJR press release described Right Decisions, Right Now as “a successful, evidence-based curriculum designed to educate middle-school students about the dangers of tobacco use" and offer "ways for them to lead a healthy lifestyle." It said, "More than 20,000 schools have used RDRN. The program is also used by groups such as the Boy Scouts of America, the Crosby Scholars Program and Big Brothers, Big Sisters.”

Others were less supportive of the program and of the NSBA's decision to work with Big Tobacco.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) called on the group to end the partnership.

“Using the message that kids need to wait until they are adults to use tobacco products in effect dares or invites them to begin smoking now,” Blumenthal said earlier this week, according to The Hill. “Big tobacco’s goal in this deal is to promote smoking, not prevent it.”

On its Facebook page, Americans for Nonsmokers Rights wrote that Big Tobacco was "up to its old tricks!"

And a noted anti-smoking researcher, University of California-San Francisco professor Stanton Glantz, wrote a blog post slamming RJR's program and declaring that "school boards that understand that you cannot 'partner' with Big Tobacco need to publicly call on NSBA to break this deal."

The school board group backtracked.

Gentzel told HuffPost that the association wasn’t necessarily endorsing RDRN, although he said he has “no reason ... to believe the program is inherently flawed.” The plan, he said, was for NSBA to spread information about the program so that more school districts knew about its availability.

He acknowledged that the partnership had a financial component, but said that he did not know how much money it would have involved exactly. “It wasn’t a lump sum,” he said. “It was going to be supporting different activities throughout the year. ... There was discussion about some advertising in our publication.”

The school board association's press release about terminating the partnership said in its defense, “Our advocacy around child well-being is unequivocal, clear and on the record: NSBA strongly supports tobacco-free public schools.”

Gentzel elaborated on why the group ended the partnership. “I just want to emphasize that our beliefs and policies as an association talk at some length about promoting tobacco-free schools and the health and well-being of children. We’re deeply committed to that, and that’s the reason we engaged in this partnership,” he said. “When other issues arose and debate started generating around it, it made sense for us to back out of that relationship.”



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