Contents: UU World Back Issue

No Formulaic Hero

Executive Director Kathy Mulvey of INFACT draws on her Unitarian Universalist faith to sustain her activism.

by Bella English

Kathy Mulvey has attended every annual meeting of Philip Morris USA for the past ten years, but she's not a shareholder interested in the dividends of the world's most profitable tobacco company. In 1995, she helped unfurl a 200-foot banner with photos of people whose illnesses or deaths were smoking-related. She used her two minutes at the mike to memorialize eleven such victims.

Last year, when Philip Morris's parent company changed its name to Altria, she held a canvas depicting the Marlboro Man as a skeleton wearing a red bandana with the Philip Morris/Altria logo. She stepped to the microphone and noted that despite a 1,712 percent increase in its advertising budget between 1998 and 2000, Philip Morris ranked fifty-ninth of sixty companies in a Harris poll on corporate reputations.

Mulvey does not own Altria stock, but borrows the proxies of two Catholic convents—one in Kentucky, another in Texas—that own a few shares of stock so representatives can attend annual meetings to lodge protests. Mulvey is the executive director of INFACT, a nonprofit organization that targets what it calls corporate abuse.

INFACT has had a couple of big successes—notably, the Nestlé boycott that brought about reforms in the marketing of infant formula in developing countries, and a boycott of General Electric that forced the industry leader out of the nuclear weapons business.

Now INFACT is poised to score its biggest coup: helping in the ratification of the world's first public health treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The treaty would ban tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship, meaning Altria would have to do away with its iconic Marlboro Man and stop sponsoring athletic and cultural events in the countries that ratify it. Cigarette brands would no longer appear on billboards, hats, bags, cafe umbrellas, and other merchandise. On May 21, 2003, after three years of negotiations, 192 countries including the United States adopted the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in Geneva. Next, at least forty countries must ratify the treaty for it to become international law; it would take effect only in the ratifying countries.

After the public health advocates suggested a treaty at a Paris conference in 1994, INFACT was one of the first public interest groups to join the cause. During the negotiations, INFACT provided research on tobacco to developing countries, exposed “Big Tobacco's” opposition, helped organize demonstrations and rallies, and met with government officials to build support. “A company like Philip Morris has annual revenues that dwarf the gross domestic product of many countries where it operates,” says Mulvey. “That's why global cooperation is so important.”

Mulvey credits her Unitarian Universalist roots for her interest in social causes. Her parents began taking her to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Andover, Massachusetts, when she was two years old. Today, at 37, she lives a distance away but still goes back to her home church for holiday services. Mulvey looks back to her religious education, to the year her class visited and learned about other faiths. Mulvey credits that experience with helping her understand “the folks that get involved in our work. I really got a lot out of that,” she says.

Mulvey sees a big difference between social service and social activism in pursuit of systemic change. “The UU tradition,” she says, “seems to be more social justice than just taking care of people slipping through the cracks.”

“The solid underpinnings of justice and human dignity,” she says, “are definitely a foundation of the work I've chosen to do.” Mulvey says she also learned to question authority, something that has stood her well at INFACT. “So much of what we do is about the orthodoxy of business, and how people just blindly follow,” she adds. “Coming out of UU tradition, that just does not make sense to me.”

So how did a small group like INFACT take on Big Tobacco? Much of the answer lies with Mulvey, who joined INFACT in 1989. She is not an in-your-face firebrand but she has the tenacity of a pit bull, using facts and argument rather than bullhorns and bully pulpits. INFACT 's mission has become her life: curbing what it calls life-threatening abuses by corporations and increasing their public accountability.

Patti Lynn, campaign director for INFACT, says Mulvey's most valuable attribute is her ability to inspire others that long odds can be overcome. “In 1993,” Lynn says, “an international treaty on tobacco control was beyond imagination.” It was that year that a handwritten note from one Philip Morris executive to another said of INFACT's Kraft boycott: “This group could be real trouble. We are gearing up to defend.”

Mulvey smiles. “They hired public relations firms and sent people out to monitor the boycott,” she says. “They were trying to make lemonade out of lemons, but it didn't work.”

INFACT — shorthand for Infant Formula Action Campaign—is named after its first project; the name has stuck. The group began in 1977. Today, in a Boston industrial loft divided into cubicles, ten organizers labor on projects. There are buttons and bumper stickers on bulletin boards with slogans such as “Shame on Philip Morris” and “Big Business Out of Congress.” One wall is filled with e-mails and congratulations that poured in after the successful tobacco negotiations. INFACT operates almost entirely from private donations, which range from “a dollar to tens of thousands,” Mulvey says.

Mulvey learned the ropes of grass-roots campaigns during the General Electric boycott. “When we started our campaign, General Electric was the leading producer of nuclear weapons components,” she says. “They were a hugely powerful lobbying presence. They were influencing our government on issues of war and peace.” So INFACT borrowed a page from the civil rights movement, organizing a consumer boycott of everything from GE light bulbs to refrigerators. In particular, the group targeted the company's big-ticket items, such as CT scanners and MRI machines.

The boycott led to a film, Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment. INFACT was the executive producer of the film, which won the Oscar for short documentary film in 1992 and gave the campaign the visibility it needed. INFACT was able to document $75 million in lost sales for GE because of the boycott, and six months later the company announced it was pulling out of the nuclear industry.

INFACT next trained its sights on the tobacco industry because of its death toll, which the World Health Organization puts at nearly 5 million a year. INFACT had two goals: to stop the addiction of new customers, especially children, and to stop tobacco companies from influencing public policy. Again, INFACT employed the boycott—not just of cigarettes but also of any Kraft food product (Kraft is also owned by Altria).

“We helped reduce their economic and political interests,” Mulvey says. “It's not as acceptable today to take money from tobacco interests.” Three years ago, INFACT produced another film, Making a Killing: Philip Morris, Kraft and Global Tobacco Addiction.

When the tobacco treaty was approved, INFACT lifted its Kraft boycott. But the tobacco campaign won't be over until forty countries ratify the treaty, which was the first ever negotiated under the auspices of the World Health Organization. Mulvey notes that the United States has not yet ratified it—nor does she expect it to. In fact, she says, the U.S. delegation was obstructionist. “We still haven't overcome tobacco's stranglehold on Congress,” she says. “Our country is essentially saying the financial interests of companies like Philip Morris should take priority over the health of kids. At the negotiations, the U.S. held out until the last minute. It was only forced into voting for it after the other countries did.”

Mark Berlind, legislative counsel for Altria, says the corporation supports the treaty in its final form. “We have changed our policies a lot,” he says. “We agree that smoking causes cancer, that it is addictive, and that the best thing is to quit.” Still, Altria, like the United States, opposes the ban on advertising, at least to adults. As for INFACT's role, Berlind says, “I wouldn't say anything about them, except that we appear to be in agreement with them on the treaty.”

As of March 1, 2004, nine countries have ratified the pact: Norway, Malta, Fiji, India, Mongolia, New Zealand, Palau, the Seychelles, and Sri Lanka. Now, INFACT is working to get thirty-one more countries to follow. Mulvey says she expects the majority of countries to sign on.

“This treaty will save millions of lives and change the way Big Tobacco operates globally,” Mulvey says. “It is truly a victory for people's health over the profits of giant corporations.”

 Contents: UU World Back Issue
: 42-44

Unitarian Universalist Association | 25 Beacon Street, Boston MA 02108 | 617-742-2100
Copyright © 2002-2004 Unitarian Universalist Association | Privacy Policy | Contact Us | Search Our Site | Site Map