How tobacco industry manipulates corporate citizenship | Sunday Observer

How tobacco industry manipulates corporate citizenship

6 December, 2020

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) measures in the context of the tobacco industry (TI) as the promotion of “voluntary measures as an effective way to address tobacco control and create an illusion of being a ‘changed’ industry and to establish partnerships with health interests”

The TI uses a wide range of CSR strategies, such as brokering access to public officials, influencing policy preparations, breaking up opposing political coalitions and rebuilding the industry’s reputation for instance, as a provider of reliable information or as a platform of voluntary regulation.

In Sri Lanka, the annual report of the tobacco industry is self-explanatory that they are engaged in CSR activities. Hence they are violating a law.

If a country has banned Article 13 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) of the World Health Organization, TI is not permitted to advertise or promote their products by law, and engage in CSR activities offering an alternative route to reach various audiences.

The FCTC of the WHO additionally bans tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship of any form. Signatory countries are obligated to “undertake a comprehensive ban on all tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.

As a part of TI’s public relations, CSR and related corporate social investment programs, the TI has a long history of making philanthropic donations.

Tobacco tactics

CSR has been used as an effective political strategy by the tobacco industry to build support for policy positions that favour tobacco industry interests and to weaken opposition. CSR also serves to facilitate access to policymakers, enhance the industry’s reputation as a source of credible information and discourage implementing evidence-based tobacco control interventions.

The tobacco industry also uses CSR to improve its reputation, image and credibility, present the tobacco industry as “good corporate citizen”, increase profits, and prevent health policy and general tobacco control regulation implementation. CSR enables the tobacco industry to mitigate reputational and regulatory risks as well as gain a “competitive advantage” over other brands.

CSR achieves more for the tobacco industry than just image or reputation management. It helps the industry secure access to policymakers and increase its chance of influencing the policy and political agendas. CSR is also used to promote dialogues with policymakers, influence priorities of elected and public officials, advocate for modes of voluntary regulation over extent/government regulation and build trust of public-private partnership with the industry. CSR is used as a platform for “stakeholder management” using “techniques of neutralisation” which are used to “justify, excuse, or in some way rationalise behaviour that flouts social norms.”

Arts sponsorship

Arts sponsorship is a longstanding and effective form of promotion for the tobacco industry. As a form of CSR, association with the arts aids the tobacco industry’s efforts to combine its brands with desirable behaviour, and to improve goodwill among a variety of audiences, from a local to the international level. The industry’s association with glamour, luxury and aspiration, helps them more to combine with arts. TI also uses arts institutions to advocate on their behalf to policymakers.

Experimental marketing through sponsorship of artists and art institutions can help the tobacco industry to increase the appeal of tobacco brands and products and recruit new consumers by “associating its products with fun, excitement, sex, wealth and power and as a means of expressing rebellion and independence.”

Tobacco industry’s associates have received awards for their CSR activities, including human resources, sustainability, community development and supply chain management.

Simultaneously, they get publicity for the awards they receive for CSR practices by highlighting them in their sustainability and annual reports and inviting press attention. This strategy forms one part of the tobacco industry’s larger CSR engagements being made in subtle manner. It helps them mitigate the risk to the industry’s reputation as a result of historical and current social wrongdoings.

Numerous academic studies have questioned the industry’s stated aim for its CSR policies of improving social and environmental outcomes. Such studies have queried of some cynical motivation that facilities ‘business as usual’ and unknown hides ‘the structural disparities through which exploitation takes place.

The awards ceremonies enable spaces for tobacco industry to gain access to senior government officials, such as finance, commerce and trade. They are most vulnerable to creating tobacco industry interferences.

Awards ceremonies

The tobacco industry is mostly recognised for their involvement with tobacco farmers who are really employed through contracts, rather than directly by the industry with poor working conditions, including exploiting child labour, high health risk and creating a continued cycle of poverty of people.

The tobacco industry’s CSR involvements include donations and programs that often focus on education. This is a longstanding industry strategy which the World Health Organization defines as ‘no beneficial outcomes for youth’, but enables the tobacco industry to ‘gain the mantle of good corporate citizenship.’ The tobacco industry publicly always maintains that it does not target children. On the contrary, the sustainability of the tobacco industry in the future solely relies on acquiring new users or the potential users. It is to replace their dead customers by enrolling youth through diverse capturing. Since advertising for cigarettes is increasingly regulated, and targeting children is illegal, the industry needs other ways to reach the young.

Another subtle and less known way to gain access to children is by setting up and running ‘anti-smoking’ education programs, or youth smoking programs for schools, the media, young people and parents. The industry educational interventions depict smoking as an ‘adult choice’ and as ‘uncool’, at the same time they involve intensive efforts to recapture recent quitters and refine marketing techniques.

Educational campaigns

These educational campaigns along with philanthropy as part of its reputation management strategy are implemented by the tobacco industry to ward off allegations by anti-tobacco movements. The industry’s CSR role is wide. They fund universities to negate scientific evidence to the effect that smoking is harmful, but also in favour of tobacco industry interests. There are ample examples to prove such attempts.

The World Health Organization states that CSR programs of the tobacco industry focus on health, both public and personal, and they are a key aspect of their strategies. They are more ‘cynical’ or more of an ‘inherent contradiction’. CSR activities in the field of health enable the industry to gain reputational legitimacy, to approach policy makers and even challenge public health bodies and tobacco control advocates.

The tobacco industry has employed their agents by the informal name, ‘Front Groups’. People are unaware of these subtle attempts. But we know well of them and their motives behind. When somebody writes to the media in favour of tobacco control, a few days after an article would appear on the same subject against the facts or proposals highlighted in favour of health. Such people are hired by the tobacco industry to mislead the public as well as policy makers. This is very much happening in Sri Lanka. On the other hand, when an article is appeared against tobacco promotions and in favour of a good health policy ‘pro-tobacco people’ presumably, hired by the tobacco industry would write to ‘government officials engaged in tobacco control’ about the contents of the article requesting under clause ‘the right to know information’. This too happens often in Sri Lanka.

In the context of tobacco industries’ CSR activities in response to Covid-19 pandemic, they have used the situation to promote themselves as pharmaceutical and public health organisations, rather than cigarette manufacturers. In such attempt, a wholly owned subsidiary of the industry has received international press coverage for its ongoing development of Covid-19 vaccine using tobacco plants. The industry led companies have made donations of either money, food or medical equipment, including ventilators to Covid-19 relief efforts. One such company has stated they donated over US$ 30 million during the crisis. These figures are far outweighed by the economic costs of tobacco as a result of tax avoidance and the impact of smoking on healthcare systems.