To hear Susan Choi tell it, the "immersion workshop" she plans for Duluth on Feb. 28 is all about doing good for the community.
"It's simple," Choi said in a telephone conversation from her home base in Berlin, Germany. "I just want people's voices to be heard."
But in Pat McKone's view, the real purpose behind the event is nefarious: a marketing push by Big Tobacco.
"There's no doubt about what their ulterior motive is for this workshop," said McKone, regional senior director of the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest. "This is a market study for a product that when used according to directions kills those users."
McKone's suspicions were aroused when she was contacted by two Duluth nonprofits who had received emails from someone identifying herself as Ellen Panescu, writing on behalf of "Mr. Susan Works, a trends and innovation agency based in New York and Berlin."
The email goes on: "We have been tapped in by Altria (Richmond, VA) to create a workshop in Duluth to help a small group of executives take a closer look at the current aspects affecting American life and the American dream."
Altria is the parent company of Philip Morris, one of the world's largest producers and marketers of tobacco products.
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said she received a similar email from Panescu.
"I got a very awkwardly worded invitation to participate as a panelist in a workshop here in Duluth," Larson said. "It started out with a lot of flattery, which always makes me suspicious."
"I have to say I am feeling a bit awed writing you," Panescu's email to Larson began.
It took her only a couple of minutes online to discover the Big Tobacco connection, Larson said.
"Anytime there's a bait and switch, I am not interested," she said. "I told them we had done some research ... and we were not interested in supporting this event."
An email to Panescu's address led to the phone call from Choi, who said she founded Mr. Susan Works 12 years ago, working out of Berlin because she also is in the food business there.
Choi said her clients have included large pharmaceutical as well as large tobacco companies, but she's not involved in marketing their products. Instead, her agency helps them spend some of their profits in ways that contribute to communities.
"We are a trend consultancy," Choi said. "It's not what's cool, or what's the next hot color. It's really thinking about human behavior, how that human behavior impacts plans, people, politics, everything."
Regarding marketing tobacco, Choi said, "I am so completely agnostic on things like that. I don't even know what that would like."
McKone wasn't buying that. "(This is) an industry that has to keep current with trends because it's a hard product to sell," she said. "Nothing the tobacco industry does is coincidental. They chose Duluth for a reason, and that should have our flags up."
Choi said too much was being made of the event, which she said would involve 10 people. No specific location had been chosen she said, but she plans to fly from Berlin herself to participate.
Nonetheless, she was taken aback by the objections to the event, Choi said.
"It feels very unwelcoming at this point, which rubs me the wrong way," she said.
A spokesman for Altria confirmed that Mr. Susan Works does projects for the corporation.