The Collegian
Monday, October 02, 2023

Altria and tobacco industry maintain years-long ties to UR

<p>Altria headquarters located in Henrico County, Virginia. Photo courtesy of the Richmond Times Dispatch.&nbsp;</p>

Altria headquarters located in Henrico County, Virginia. Photo courtesy of the Richmond Times Dispatch. 

When senior Zoe Rydzewski transferred to the University of Richmond, she was shocked to discover that the on-campus convenience store Everything Convenience sold cigarettes students could buy with their meal plans.

“That was something that my old school did not do," Rydzewski said.

ETC currently sells 10 different types of cigarettes for students to buy.

“I think UR should follow the lead of CVS drugstores and stop selling tobacco products," Rick Mayes, professor of healthcare studies, said in an email. “If selling tobacco is inconsistent with a for-profit company like CVS' purpose, how could it be consistent with UR's purpose?"

Marketing professor Bill Bergman shared a similar, but more personal, sentiment.

“For one who was a nicotine addict like myself, it's just such a hard thing to give up," Bergman said. “I think it was harder giving up smoking than running a marathon."

Rydzewski is one of the three founding members of a new anti-smoking group, UR Air Is My Air.

Stephen Kapostas, sophomore, said the goal of the group is a smoke-free campus.

For co-founder and sophomore Jennifer Piciw, second-hand smoke is a serious medical issue, which is perpetuated by students who smoke within 25 feet of dorms.

“I have asthma so I hate walking past people smoking," Piciw said. The group is not trying to convert smokers into non-smokers but rather educate smokers about the 25-foot rule and the health consequences of inhaling second-hand smoke.

But UR's ties to tobacco run deeper than students or faculty smoking outside of dorms.

Altria Group Inc., the parent company to Philip Morris, bought its Henrico County corporate headquarters from the university in June, after leasing from UR since 2003, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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An Altria spokesperson said the company paid $20.8 million to UR for the building, which originally housed Reynolds Metals Co., another corporation with ties to UR as well as tobacco manufacturing. Since 2003, the tobacco manufacturing company leased the building owned by UR.

“Altria has been a terrific tenant,” Cynthia Price, UR director of media and public relations, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “We didn’t have a strategic use for the building and their lease was about to expire. We had a conversation with them and they decided to assume full ownership.”

UR acquired the historic building, built in 1958 and located off West Broad Street near Interstate 64, in Dec. 2001 from Alcoa Inc. after it purchased Reynolds Metals in 2000, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

As New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed to toughen his city’s anti-smoking laws in 2003, Philip Morris decided to move its headquarters to a tobacco-friendly city, according to The New York Times. Phillip Morris moved to Richmond from New York and rebranded as Altria the same year.

Under Altria, Philip Morris is the second biggest tobacco and cigarette manufacturer in the world, making $80 billion per year as of 2012. Under Altria and Philip Morris International — an independent international branch since 2008 — the tobacco manufacturer produces brands such as Marlboro.

Besides the land, Altria is a big part of the E. Claiborne Robins School of Business, Bergman said.

In 2008, The Collegian reported that the university maintains a long-running relationship with Philip Morris.

Philip Morris USA gave UR $1 million as a grant to fund a program that brought Richmond city schoolchildren to campus for math and science courses, according to a 2008 article from The Collegian.

Altria continues to fund a marketing scholarship in the business school and also provides a pathway for its employees to receive an MBA at UR, Bergman said.

“Altria presently supports with small grants several programs in our career services area," Price said in an emailed statement. “Altria and Philip Morris have hired our students and also participate in some of our business school programs."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the U.S., accounting for more than 480,000 deaths yearly.

William Cooper, the university president at the time Philip Morris offered to lease the historic building, told The New York Times that people raised the question about whether a university should take on a tobacco company as a tenant.

“It's something we looked at, as any university would,'' he said. “In the end, we felt that it was in our best interests to lease to Philip Morris. The product they represent we regard as a matter of choice for the society at large.''

An estimated 36.5 million adults in the U.S. currently smoke cigarettes and more than 16 million Americans are living with a smoking-related disease.

For Bergman, who used to smoke three packs of cigarettes per day, such a connection strikes a cord that extends beyond just business.

“It's just a horrible, horrible, horrible addiction at a time when we're having enough problems," Bergman said.

Contact editor-in-chief Claire Comey at

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