Skip to content ↓
Press Room

It’s Time Advertising Agencies Quit Big Tobacco

On World No Tobacco Day, panel examines role advertising agencies play in marketing for the tobacco industry

(New York, USA) – Experts from advertising agencies, public relations firms, and public health organizations today called on companies and organizations to pledge not to work with advertising agencies that have tobacco clients during a moderated panel hosted by Vital Strategies.

The Quit Big Tobacco Panel (R-L): Jonathan Olinger, Founder, HUMAN NY; Ryan David Kennedy, PhD, Assistant Professor, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; Stephen Hamill, Vice President, Vital Strategies; Madalene Milano, Partner, GMMB; Jessica Glenza, Health Reporter, The Guardian US; and Jimmie Stone, Chief Creative Officer, Edelman.

“Advertising is the vector for the disease caused by tobacco use, which will kill more than 7 million people this year alone” said Stephen Hamill, Vice President of Policy, Advocacy & Communications at Vital Strategies, which recently launched a new campaign called #QuitBigTobacco that’s encouraging public health organizations and healthcare companies to pledge not to work with ad agencies with tobacco clients. Since the campaign was launched, 85 different organizations have signed the pledge.

The panel took place on World No Tobacco Day, just hours before the annual Effie Gala where leading ad agencies — including those with tobacco clients — are recognized for their effective marketing.

This year’s nominees include Ogilvy which is a finalist in the Disease Awareness & Education category for a Real-Time Pre-Diabetes Test PSA ad it produced for the Ad Council. Ogilvy was nominated despite the fact that it also develops ads for companies like British American Tobacco, whose product increases the likelihood that people will develop diabetes.

It’s this type of conflict of interest that undermines the efforts of public health organizations and makes working with advertising firms with tobacco clients a red line that would be unethical to cross, advertising and public relations experts said.

Panelists from notable agencies that have taken the Quit Big Tobacco pledge, underlined the need for ad agencies to reckon with the role advertising plays in the tobacco epidemic.

“Tobacco is so far off the spectrum compared to other companies or industries,” said Madalene Milano, a partner at GMMB. “We need ad agencies to show the same courage that other companies like CVS have shown in swearing off tobacco.”

Jimmie Stone, chief creative officer at Edelman, agreed. “We are entering a behavioral marketing era – you have to build your brand not by what you say but what you do,” he said.

“This is something that really does call for moral courage, as well as just standard intelligence,” added Jonathan Olinger, founder of HUMAN NY.

One billion people will die from tobacco-related diseases by the end of the century, if current trends hold. Unfortunately, many advertising firms like Ogilvy, Leo Burnett and others have not found that moral courage, which helps to advance the tobacco industry’s deadly agenda of cultivating new and younger smokers.

“The tobacco industry has to replace their customers because they die,” said Ryan David Kennedy, PhD, Assistant Professor, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “If used as intended, tobacco will kill half of its users.”

“We have to attack the tobacco industry with death by a thousand cuts. We need a single message to take on the industry,” said Jimmie Stone.

On World No Tobacco Day, that message was: Quit Big Tobacco.

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 find out more, please visit or Twitter @VitalStrat.

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