The Academies of Nashville Awards are supposed to be about getting dressed up and recognizing outstanding business and school partnerships and excellence in educational leadership, but this year's Awards sparked controversy due to it's main sponsor, Altria, one of the largest producers of tobacco products in the world.
"Letting big tobacco near the school system is a problem," Will Pinkston, a Metro Nashville Public Schools board member, said, speaking as a parent of children in the school district.
Pinkston believes a tobacco company should not be allowed to sponsor an event that is about education of Nashville's youth.
"They're getting the ability to tell their investors and tell their customers that we're doing something for the public school system," Pinkston explained. "If they really want to do something, they can quietly contribute a check."
Altria has sponsored the event for years, but this year, spokespersons for groups like the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network spoke out, saying in part, "Altria's sponsorship of this event is an obvious example of how tobacco companies try to present themselves as responsible corporations when in fact they continue to aggressively market their deadly and addictive products in ways that attract a new generation of tobacco users."
Pinkston said he is calling on the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce to "step up and do the right thing."
A spokesperson for the Chamber of Commerce released a statement, saying the following:
"The Academies of Nashville Awards is an adult-only, voluntary evening event that honors Nashville-region educators and business partnerships. As in the past, the event is underwritten by a number of businesses, with Altria Group, the parent company of a large Nashville employer and Chamber member, again serving as title sponsor. Altria is involved because they are a large Nashville employer that cares about this community and its workforce. There is no marketing of their products at this event; only adults are invited, and participation in the event is voluntary for MNPS employees and businesses."
Altria also released a statement.
"Altria supports the Chamber's event because it helps strengthen workforce development in Nashville, an issue important to our local operating company which has been a large employer there for decades. Our financial support is to the Chamber and its important to note that this is an adult-only event where no students are present."
Metro Nashville Education Association president Erick Huth said he believes there should be no affiliation between a school event and a tobacco company, and called for change.
"It's probably cleanest to just keep big tobacco away from our schools altogether," Huth said. "There are plenty of opportunities I'm sure that the chamber has that Altria could support and I'm sure if they worked it out they could probably find someone else to support this event."
When asked about Altria's sponsorship of the event, a Metro Nashville Public Schools spokesperson released the following statement.
"The controversy puts Metro Schools in the middle between the chamber of commerce, a key strategic partner that supports the Academies of Nashville and the sponsors they have chosen for their event."
The spokesperson said the district declined to weigh in any further on the issue but acknowledged that the chamber's support has benefited the Academies of Nashville since their inception a decade ago.