Skip to content ↓
Press Room

Cannes Awards Has an Ethics Problem

Quit Big Tobacco campaign identifies firms with tobacco clients who are doing more harm than good in the categories of Health & Wellness and Sustainable Development Goals

(New York, USA) – Cannes Lions, the world’s premiere global advertising and marketing festival, announced this week that Dentsu, Havas, McCann, Ogilvy, and TBWA were awarded or made the shortlist for its Health & Wellness and Sustainable Development Goals award categories, despite their work with tobacco companies. The move points to a growing concern among health organizations of prestigious festivals like Cannes rewarding agencies working with health-focused clients on one hand, while turning a blind eye towards their work with the tobacco industry – an industry that will kill 7 million people this year – on the other. Global health organization Vital Strategies is bringing the issue to the forefront by encouraging organizations to cut ties with ad agencies that work with the tobacco industry through its Quit Big Tobacco campaign pledge, of which nearly 100 organizations have already signed.

“We are disappointed that Cannes has awarded and shortlisted firms that are complicit in Big Tobacco’s deadly agenda, which is diametric to success in the very category that they are being nominated for, like health or the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals,” said Rebecca Perl, Vice President of Partnerships and Initiatives at Vital Strategies. “Agencies like Ogilvy and McCann help the tobacco industry cultivate new, younger consumers, many of which will be among the 1 billion people projected to die from smoking over the next century. What’s more, many health organizations do not know that the creatives working on their campaign may also be serving Big Tobacco’s deadly agenda. We encourage Cannes and health-minded organizations alike to cut ties with the industry for good.”

The Cannes Lions award criteria include advertising creative that advances public health:

– Health & Wellness Lions: “The Health & Wellness Lions celebrate creativity for personal wellbeing.”

– Sustainable Development Goals Lions: “The Sustainable Development Goals Lions celebrate creative solutions and initiatives that seek to positively impact the world – work that contributed to or advanced the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development across people, planet and prosperity.”

Agencies with tobacco clients that are winning or nominated in these categories may very well be doing more harm than good. For example:

– Ogilvy won a Cannes Health & Wellness Silver Lion for an ad created for Cook County Hospital (Chicago, U.S.). However, Ogilvy also has British American Tobacco and the Philip Morris-funded Foundation for a Smoke Free World as clients.

– McCann was awarded a Cannes Health & Wellness Silver Lion for an ad created for Cigna, despite McCann’s work for Rajnigandha Pan Masala (DS Group).

– Dentsu, Havas, McCann, and TBWA were shortlisted for the Cannes U.N. Sustainable Development Goal Lions, despite their work with Japan Tobacco, RJ Reynolds, DS Group, and Korea Tobacco, respectively. Tobacco is the single largest driver of preventable death globally, and threatens the core mission of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. In fact, most U.N. agencies themselves have rules against working with the tobacco industry because of the death and destruction those companies cause.

These are just a few examples of duplicity at this year’s Cannes awards, but the conflict is systemic in the ad industry.

The Quit Big Tobacco campaign is drawing a line in the sand between Big Tobacco and organizations that care about health. Launched in March 2018, nearly 100 organizations, universities, companies, and NGOs, and several notable ad agencies, have joined the Quit Big Tobacco campaign by pledging to not work with any advertising firm that has tobacco clients. The campaign has taken tens of millions off the table for agencies who work with tobacco. The pledge asks that organizations

1. DO NOT work with Big Tobacco or its ad agencies and PR firms. Pledge to Quit Big Tobacco and its ad partners.

2. DO NOT take money from tobacco companies or the Philip Morris-funded Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. ALL money from Big Tobacco was earned by selling products that maim and kill people around the globe. Pledge to not accept money from Big Tobacco.

3. DO NOT allow Big Tobacco to sponsor or distribute cigarettes at your events or performances to hook young new smokers. Pledge to ban tobacco in ALL forms from your events and venues.

Find more information about Quit Big Tobacco, including the full list of nearly 100 organizations that have signed the pledge, at You can also read more about a recent Quit Big Tobacco panel discussion Vital Strategies hosted on World No Tobacco Day, featuring experts from Edelman, GMMB, HUMAN, and John Hopkins University, here.

About Vital Strategies

Vital Strategies is a global health organization that believes every person should be protected by a strong public health system. Our team combines evidence-based strategies with innovation to help develop and implement sound public health policies, manage programs efficiently, strengthen data systems, conduct research, and design strategic communication campaigns for policy and behavior change. To learn more, please visit or @VitalStrat

For further information or to arrange an interview with a Vital Strategies public health and tobacco control expert, please contact