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SPI’s Esposito Says Russian Vodka Boycott “Hurts Those It’s Trying To Protect”

July 30, 2013

Following the enactment of anti-LGBT decrees in Russia, a host of LGBT activists have called for a boycott of Russian vodka in the U.S. market, and several well-known gay bars in Chicago and other markets have pulled brands like Stolichnaya from their shelves. However, as John Esposito, president of SPI North America (a subsidiary of Stoli owner SPI Group) told Shanken News Daily, the company has long been a friend to the LGBT community—and is no friend of the Russian government.

“Stoli has been a very strong partner of the LGBT community for more than a dozen years, through a wide variety of efforts, both national and local,” says Esposito. (SPI is currently partnering with Gaycities.com and Queerty.com on its “Most Original Stoli Guy” initiative, which started as a local program in Colorado and has since expanded into a national platform.) And while critics often associate Stoli with the Russian government because it’s arguably Russia’s best-known export product, Esposito points out that SPI is in fact a Luxembourg-based company that has been engaged in a long-running dispute with the Russian government over the Stoli trademark. “We certainly understand how the Russian government works, as SPI has been fighting it for 15 years.”

While Esposito is relatively new to SPI, having assumed leadership of the recently formed SPI North America earlier this year, he—like the company—has long been a proponent of LGBT causes. While a top executive with Schieffelin & Somerset Co., Esposito was a driving force behind the Tanqueray AIDS Ride effort, which at the time of its launch was one of the world’s leading fundraisers in the fight against the disease. When he took the helm at SPI North America, he ensured that the company was “created on a foundation of an equal rights for all approach from day one,” offering full partner benefits for employees, among other initiatives. “We’ve walked the walk, just as the companies I’ve been associated with always have.”

Esposito says that he “understands the emotional response” of the boycott, but that it’s unintended consequences are considerable. “When you talk about boycotting Stoli, you’re talking about harming literally thousands of Americans—distributors’ salespeople, retail workers, bartenders and waitstaff. Within those groups, of course, you have members of the LGBT community, and they’re being impacted, as are their families and friends. So, in essence, it hurts some of the very people it’s trying to protect.”

Going forward, Esposito believes that “there’ll be some difficult times” for Stoli, but he’s also optimistic about finding common ground with those who are currently calling for a boycott. “I can certainly understand the emotional response some are feeling. But what I’m hoping is that people who are interested in equal rights for all, and truly fighting to make a change, will come to us and work with us, because we’re more than ready to stand up and be counted. Meanwhile, we’ll continue to do what we’ve done for years, both on a local and national front, and that’s support equal rights—for the LGBT community and all communities.”

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