This article is part of our Rising Star Portfolio series.
I designed my Rising Star portfolio with a specific mission: to invest real money in companies that make a positive impact on the world. That mission is easier said than done, since corporate good deeds (and misdeeds) may be more complex than they initially appear.
Case in point: I was surprised to see Altria
Come to where the favor is
Can a company that makes a deadly, highly addictive product possibly be a "good citizen?" At No. 35 on the aforementioned list of best corporate citizens, Altria beat out Starbucks at No. 39, Target at No. 42, and Walt Disney at No. 58. How did it ever pull off such a feat?
Corporate Responsibility magazine's methodology includes weighting in many different areas: environment; climate change; human rights; employee relations; corporate governance; philanthropy; and financial behavior. As the only tobacco company on the list, Altria certainly enjoys more of a halo than rivals Reynolds America and Lorillard.
In at least one sense, Altria has been an excellent corporate citizen. In 2009, Altria shelled out about $54 million to a bevy of nonprofit organizations such as The Red Cross, food banks, the Smithsonian, the United Negro College Fund, and the National Urban League. Altria also scored high in the heavily weighted climate change and environmental factors.
You've come a surprisingly short way, baby
That said, let's not forget what Altra sells to bring in the money it subsequently donates. Its tobacco brands include Marlboro, the most popular U.S. cigarette brand for more than three decades, along with Virginia Slims, Parliament, Copenhagen, and Skoal.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarette smoking kills about 443,000 people in the U.S. every year, representing almost 1 in every 5 of the nation's deaths. Beyond simple mortality, the CDC also points out that smoking harms almost every organ in the body, causing a laundry list of complications such as heart disease, circulatory issues, and a variety of cancers.
Smokeless tobacco isn't a safe alternative, either. The CDC says it contains 28 cancer-causing agents, and it's also linked to gum disease, low sperm count, and of course, nicotine dependence (a gateway to cigarette smoking).
Tobacco companies like Altria look sinful not only because they provide the products, but because for decades, they publicly denied its addictiveness, despite allegedly knowing about nictotine's true nature since the 1950s.
Even if you leave aside ethical arguments, the danger of their products and the stigma of their past dishonesty adds up to serious danger for tobacco companies like Altria. Tobacco-related litigation is the first item cited in the "risk factors" section of Altria's Form 10-K. There, the company discloses that damages claimed in such litigation can sometimes run into the billions. Altria's subsequent pages of disclosure, listing case after case in which courts found in favor of plaintiffs, should give investors pause.
The threat of regulatory action is never remote for such a company. Altria says it can't predict how the Food and Drug Administration may implement and enforce its newfound authority over tobacco. The company says negative forces like regulatory threats and diminishing social acceptance of the smoking habit have already reduced the industry's volume. Not surprisingly, it expects this trend to continue.
Surgeon general's warning
Granted, many people choose to smoke, which reduces Altria's blame. The public's now well aware that these products are addictive and quite often, ultimately dangerous. Human beings often choose unhealthy behavior even when we know it's bad for us, in plenty of ways beyond lighting up a cigarette.
In coldly financial terms, it's hard to deny that Altria's successful. In addition to its addicted customer base, the company is a major dividend payer, with a 5.9% yield reimbursing investors handsomely for any sleepless nights it might give them.
Many investors, including other Fools, don't seem particularly put off by tobacco companies. Anand Chokkavelu made Altria his 11 O'Clock Stock Pick in August, and Dan Dzombak purchased shares of Altria's former subsidiary, Philip Morris International
However, when viewed through a socially responsible lens, Altria comes up seriously short. It's simply not a contender for my Rising Star portfolio; its core product is almost universally disliked, causing illness and premature death for thousands of people. Altria deserves credit for good works it does in other areas, but even that benevolence is built upon a deadly product. I prefer companies that find more positive ways to make hefty sales and profits.
What do you think? Take our Foolish poll, add Altria to your watchlist, or sound off in the comments box below.
This article is part of our Rising Star Portfolios series, where we give some of our most promising stock analysts cold, hard cash to manage on the Fool's behalf. We'd like you to track our performance and benefit from these real-money, real-time free stock picks. See all of our Rising Star analysts (and their portfolios).
Walt Disney and Starbucks are Motley Fool Stock Advisor selections. Philip Morris International is a Motley Fool Global Gains pick. The Fool owns shares of Altria Group, Philip Morris International, and Starbucks. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.
Alyce Lomax owns shares of Starbucks; for more on this and other topics, check back at Fool.com, or follow her on Twitter: @AlyceLomax. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.