CSR: Disaster Relief

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Corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes pursued by the tobacco industry take many different forms including youth smoking prevention, domestic violence, environmental sustainability and disaster relief.1 Usually, disaster response and recovery is led by national governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the disaster-stricken region. Increasingly, however, private companies have arisen as key players in disaster relief efforts. This is sometimes called “corporate philanthropic disaster response” (CPDR). First used by Alan Muller, Professor of International Management at the University of Groningen, and Gail Whiteman, Director of the Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business, this term recognises the involvement of corporations in disaster relief efforts and its increasing normalisation.2


Disaster relief efforts are part of the tobacco industry’s wider CSR strategy. Reporting of such efforts, including donations and funding recovery programmes, feature in its annual and sustainability reports. Japan Tobacco International (JTI), Altria and Philip Morris International (PMI), as well as PMI subsidiary Sampoerna (Indonesia), focus strongly in their reports and media centres on disaster relief as an element of their CSR activities.3456 JTI also funds a charitable organisation called the “JTI Foundation” which is a member of the SwissFoundations. Established in 2001, it states that it supports disaster relief and disaster risk reduction programmes across the globe through long-term partnerships with organisations.7

Supporting disaster relief efforts with donations can enhance the reputation of the tobacco industry whilst enabling the creation of goodwill and influence among political and policymaking groups.89 Participating in disaster relief efforts also gives tobacco companies the opportunity to avoid regulations and market their brand by using vehicles and uniforms featuring their logos when distributing aid. Sampoerna has been criticised for using this strategy in 2010 following the eruption of Mount Merapi in Java, Indonesia.9

In a paper analysing news media coverage of tobacco industry philanthropy, sociologist Gary Fooks and former University of Bath Tobacco Control Research Group researcher Silvy Peeters wrote that “tobacco industry corporate social responsibility thrives in disaster-hit regions of the world”.9 The tobacco industry has commonly donated to disaster relief efforts where they operate such as Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti,10 Indonesia,31110 Italy, Japan, Malaysia,10 Mexico,310 Mozambique,12 the Philippines,310 Romania, Senegal and Serbia.10 See our Greenwashing page for more information.

The geographic locations of disaster relief initiatives and donations demonstrates how these CSR efforts are often implemented strategically where tobacco company headquarters, key offices, business relations and tobacco-growing communities are based. This can be understood as “home region effect”. The “home region effect” describes where corporations are more inclined to donate to relief efforts in response to disasters which occur geographically close to their regional operations and physical offices.2

“Home” giving is routinely practiced by the tobacco industry. For example, Altria, which is based in Virginia, raised US$81,000  to support recovery efforts from Hurricane Florence after it hit the south-eastern U.S. in September 20185 and PMI employees raised US$350,000 to support colleagues and communities impacted by the Indonesian tsunami of September 2018, which affected their commercial area offices in Palu.13

The “local presence effect” notes that firms also tend to support disaster relief efforts “that occur in distant locations if the firm’s own business activities figure prominently in that location”.2 This tactic has been displayed by PMI in Mozambique when it donated US$430,000 to aid recovery efforts in the wake of cyclone Idai in March 2019. Although PMI does not directly operate in the country, it has an economic interest in Mozambique; one of its largest supplies of tobacco leaf in 2019 was Mozambique Leaf Tobacco.12 141516

Attempts to Align with Sustainable Development

Private companies are increasingly linking their CSR initiatives, specifically around disaster relief and risk reduction, to sustainable development. The tobacco industry has followed this trend in associating their longer-standing CSR activities to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).17 Use of a set of shared terms surrounding disaster CSR – such as improving community resilience, disaster risk reduction and disaster preparedness – is common to all of the largest transnational tobacco companies.345

A screenshot from an annual report with SDGs to the left and text to the right .
Image 1: Tobacco companies, as illustrated by Sampoerna (Indonesia) in its 2019 annual report, use disaster relief CSR initiatives to attempt to align themselves with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.6

The language the tobacco industry uses to describe its disaster relief CSR mirrors that of the SDGs, that use terms such as “resilience” and “risk reduction” in relation to disasters. These include: Goal 1 (no poverty), Goal 11 (sustainable cities and communities) and Goal 13 (climate action).18 Tobacco companies also explicitly link their CSR activities around disaster efforts to making progress towards and contributing to the achievement of the SDGs.319 For example, Sampoerna’s (PMI) 2019 Annual Report visually aligns its business strategies with the SDGs and gives anecdotes of how their business practices contribute to each SDG (Image 1). It specifically mentions Goal 11, in relation to disaster relief, and states “Through Sampoerna Rescue, we focus on disaster preparedness, emergency response and evacuations, recovery, revitalisation as well as mitigation to provide strong and resilient communities.”6

Tobacco Disaster Relief Collaboration with INGOs

Between 2001 and 2015, the American Red Cross received over US$12 million of tobacco industry donations. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and public health advocates both exerted pressure on the American Red Cross affiliate to stop accepting funding from tobacco companies.20

In 2015, there remained only a small number of Red Cross National Societies which continued to accept tobacco money: these included US, Germany, Russia and Vietnam.21 One of the IFRC’s concerns in relation to national societies receiving tobacco funding is that this “will tarnish the image of the global humanitarian network” as a whole.20 An internal guidance brief by the IFRC outlines the ethical worry that in the midst of a humanitarian disaster Red Cross societies “may be focused on the immediate needs and may not think twice about accepting readily available funds from tobacco industry corporations”.22 For the Red Cross, associating itself with tobacco company CSR activities, and more widely an industry that creates deadly products, fails to respect the promotion of public health which Red Cross National Societies have collectively agreed to.2022

In March 2020, Altria announced an “initial [US]$1 million commitment to support coronavirus relief efforts”, which included a distribution of funds to the American Red Cross.23

Critics have also stated that the action of a credible INGO accepting tobacco company disaster donations facilitates a “public-relations boost” for the tobacco industry.2021 Anti-tobacco activists say the tobacco industry’s PR strategy could be weakened if the American Red Cross rejected tobacco industry funding, which may also prompt other non-profits to follow suit.21

Being associated with an NGO allows the tobacco industry to cast itself as legitimate and to step into roles more typically conducted by governments or non-profits. Tobacco companies often use SDG 17 (“Partnership for the Goals”) to push for public-private collaboration. Sampoerna, for example, strongly emphasise how public-private partnerships are an integral element needed to make the SDGs an achievable reality in Indonesia. The language and descriptions used to highlight how the tobacco company collaborates with different stakeholders to contribute to sustainable development aligns with that of Goal 17 of the SDG’s “Partnerships for the Goals”.24 For example:

  • Sampoerna states: “We believe in strong partnerships to solve global issues. We invite all stakeholders from all components of society – including government, non-profit organizations, civil society groups, academics, and private businesses to join our efforts and work in unison to achieve the SDGs”.6

  • The overview and targets of SDG 17 include: “The SDGs can only be realized with strong global partnerships and cooperation”, “Enhance the global partnership for sustainable development, complemented by multi-stakeholder partnerships” and “Encourage and promote effective public, public-private and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships”25

Other tobacco companies also make similar claims in their sustainability reports.32627 Read more about tobacco industry use of “sustainability” to align with global sustainable development agendas and organisations on our Greenwashing page.

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  1. World Health Organisation, Tobacco Industry Interference: A Global Brief, WHO report, 2012, accessed June 2020
  2. abcA. Muller and G. Whiteman, Exploring the Geography of Corporate Philanthropic Disaster Response: A Study of Fortune Global 500 Firms, Journal of Business Ethics, 2009;84(4):589-603, doi:10.1007/s10551-008-9710-7
  3. abcdefgJapan Tobacco International, Integrated Report 2019, JTI website, 2020, accessed June 2020
  4. abPhilip Morris International, Integrated Report, PMI report, 2020, accessed June 2020
  5. abcAltria, Corporate Responsibility Progress Report, Altria website, 2020, accessed June 2020
  6. abcdSampoerna, Annual Report, Sampoerna website, 2020, accessed June 2020
  7. Japan Tobacco International Foundation, About Us, JTI Foundation website, undated, accessed July 2020
  8. Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance, End Tobacco Industry Corporate Giving: A Review of CSR in Southeast Asia, SEATCA website, July 2014, accessed June 2020
  9. abcG. Fooks and S. Peeters, News Analysis World: Disasters are ‘Brand Aid’ Opportunities for Tobacco, Tobacco Control, 2011;20(1):4, doi:10.1136/tc.2010.041996
  10. abcdefPhilip Morris International, Charitable contributions PMI 2014-2018, PMI website, undated, accessed March 2020
  11. Philip Morris International, Rebuilding Palu: Helping Indonesia recover one year after the 2018 tsunami, 29 November 2019, accessed March 2020
  12. abPhilip Morris International, PMI and PwH donate USD 430,000 to Mozambique in Cyclone Idai Appeal, PMI website, 29 April 2019, accessed March 2020
  13. Philip Morris International, Rebuilding Palu: Helping Indonesia recover one year after the 2018 tsunami, PMI news website, 29 November 2019, accessed June 2020
  14. Philip Morris International, Annual Report, website, 2019, accessed July 2020
  15. Triple Pundit, Crop Diversification Helps Tobacco Farmers Build Resilience, Triple Pundit PMI sponsored series, 7 February 2020, accessed July 2020
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  17. L. Green, Tobacco industry: Truly transformed or using SDGs as a smokescreen for old strategies?, Analysis: Hijacking the SDGs? The Private Sector and the Sustainable Development Goals, 2018:20-29, doi:https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328784350
  18. Prevention Web, SDGs with Targets related to Disaster Risk, Sendai Framework website, undated, accessed July 2020
  19. Philip Morris International Philippines, About Us: Philippines, PMI Philippines about us, undated, accessed July 2020
  20. abcdPhilanthropy News Digest, American Red Cross Under Pressure to Stop Accepting Tobacco Money, PND website, 12 January 2015, accessed June 2020
  21. abcReuters, American Red Cross pressured to stop taking money from tobacco companies, The Guardian, 7 January 2015, accessed June 2020
  22. abInternational Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Red Cross Red Crescent non-engagement with tobacco companies, IFRC internal guidance brief, June 2015, accessed June 2020
  23. Altria, Altria announces initial $1 million commitment to support coronavirus relief efforts, Altria investor statement, 20 March 2020, accessed July 2020
  24. UN SDGs, Make the SDGs a reality, UN SDG website, undated, accessed July 2020
  25. United Nations Sustainable Development, Goal 17, SDGs website, undated, accessed July 2020
  26. British American Tobacco, ESG Report, BAT report, 2019, accessed July 2020
  27. British American Tobacco, Sustainability Strategy Report, BAT report, 2019, accessed July 2020