CSR: Education

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Tobacco industry corporate social responsibility (CSR) donations and programmes often focus on education. This type of CSR is part of a longstanding industry strategy recognised by the World Health Organization (WHO) as having “no beneficial outcomes for youth” and that enables tobacco companies to “gain the mantle of good corporate citizenship”.1

Publicly, the tobacco industry has always maintained that it does not target children. However, the sustainability of the tobacco industry in the future relies on acquiring new users: youth. Since advertising for cigarettes is increasingly regulated, and targeting children is illegal, the industry needs other ways to reach the young.

Funding education

Child Labour Education Programmes

The tobacco industry often funds education organisations and programmes as part of its child labour CSR. These programmes purportedly help to empower local communities and keep children out of tobacco fields. However, as the industry provides no verifiable figures of the number of underage labourers it and its contractors employ on tobacco farms, there is no way to assess how effective these programmes really are.

  • For more information on child labour in the tobacco supply chain and industry CSR initiatives, see our page on CSR: Child Labour.

Youth Smoking Prevention Programmes

Another way to gain access to children is by setting up and running ‘anti-smoking’ education programmes, or youth smoking programmes (YSP) for schools, the media, young people and parents. This page presents research by the WHO into education programmes set up by the tobacco industry. While industry educational interventions depict smoking as an “adult choice” and as “uncool”, they also involve concerted efforts to recapture recent quitters and refine marketing techniques.2

The tobacco industry purposefully implements education campaigns and philanthropy as part of its reputation management strategy. As one 1993 Philip Morris document revealed, going public with a campaign to discourage juvenile smoking positions the industry as a “concerned corporate citizen” in an effort to ward off further attacks by the anti-tobacco movement.3

Twenty years earlier, in 1973, British American Tobacco put it even more bluntly. An internal document described the company’s own plans to reduce youth exposure to cigarette advertising as “a phony way of showing sincerity as we all well know”.4

The proposal was put before the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government in an effort to show that the company was doing something about discouraging young people to smoke.

  • For more information on tobacco industry-funded health initiatives, including YSP, see our page CSR: Health.

The Conrad Challenge

The tobacco industry also gains access to youth through foundations that supply grants to educational ‘challenges’.

Since 2017, The Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge (in collaboration with the Conrad Foundation) has been a grantee of the PMI funded Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW). The Challenge invites high-school students (aged 13-18 years old) to “design 21st century solutions to re-purpose global farmland that is currently used for tobacco production, especially in African countries”.56 The 2019 program focused on India, Malawi and China.7 For the 2019-2020 round, the Conrad Foundation added a special category, called “Re-purpose Farmlands & Tobacco Crops”, another challenge especially funded by FSFW. This category challenges participants to develop “solutions to increase smallholder agriculture efficiency and productivity” for farmers in low-income countries “whom are economically dependent on tobacco crops for their livelihood”.8

In January 2021, the Delhi government in India urged schools not to participate in tobacco industry sponsored events, with the Directorate of Education (DoE) emphasising in a letter to school principals that “prizes or scholarships offered by such firms should not be accepted by educational institutions or students”. The DoE letter followed guidelines issued by the Health Ministry to avoid any collaboration with tobacco industry led foundations. The article states that the Conrad Challenge, through the FSFW and Conrad Foundation collaboration, has “been trying to influence school children” and “is trying to promote its harm reduction devices”.9

Funding universities

The tobacco industry attempts to enhance its reputation, and gain legitimacy, by funding universities. In 2000, Nottingham University elicited scrutiny for its decision to accept GB£3.8 million from BAT to establish an International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility.1011 The decision of the University to accept tobacco “blood money” led to the resignation of Richard Smith, then editor of the British Medical Journal (BMJ), from his post as professor of medical journalism.12

BAT is not alone in its attempts to gain credibility by funding universities. Duke University has a history of taking money from tobacco companies, including Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds (acquired by BAT in 2017). Read more at Duke University and the Tobacco Industry.

Altria has also provided more than US$2.5 million to Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) between 2016 and 2019.13 The company also provided funding to the University of Virginia (UVA) in the form of a US$25 million donation facilitated by the then-UVA President, John Casteen III, “to make significant progress on reducing the harm associated with cigarettes”, which “could yield great benefits to society”.14 Casteen was later promoted to the Altria board.13 More information on Altria’s historic contributions to VCU and the University of Virginia can be found on our page on Altria.

Tobacco companies also fund specific university-based programmes and activities. For example, in May 2011, Durham University was criticised for accepting a GB£125,000 donation from BAT towards the Chancellor’s Scholarships for Afghan Women appeal. The appeal assists women to come to Durham from Kabul University to study their postgraduate degrees for five years. Read more on our page Targeting Women and Girls.

Besides serving a CSR role, providing funding to universities is also part of tobacco companies’ strategy of promoting scientific evidence in favour of tobacco industry interests. Recent examples of this phenomenon can be seen through the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, which is wholly-funded by PMI, and its funding of university-based grantees including the Centre for Health Research and Education (CHRE) at the University of Southampton Science Park and NO.SMOKE at the University of Patras in Greece. Visit our page on Influencing Science for more information.

Tobacco Tactics Resources

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  1. WHO, Tobacco industry interference with tobacco control, 2009, accessed June 2020
  2. P.M. Ling, S.A. Glantz, Tobacco Industry Research on Smoking Cessation: Recapturing Young Adults and Other Recent Quitters, J Gen Int Med, 2004;19(5 Pt 1):419–426, doi:10.1111%2Fj.1525-1497.2004.30358.x
  3. C. Leiber, Philip Morris International, Youth campaign for Latin America, 23 September 1993, Truth Tobacco Industry Documents, ID:ngbd0110
  4. S. Hung, Smoking and health meeting, 14 February 1973, Truth Tobacco Industry Documents, ID:fzjx0111
  5. Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge, Special 2017-2018 Category…Change the world today. Foundation for a smoke-free world, 2017, accessed February 2018
  6. Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge, Conrad Challenge Sponsors, 2017, accessed February 2018
  7. Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, Minutes of a Special Meeting of the Board of Directors June 21, 2018, FSFW website, accessed September 2018
  8. Conrad Foundation, 2019-2020 Special Category: Re-purposed Farmlands & Tobacco Crops, Conrad Challenge website, undated, accessed February 2020
  9. News 18 India, Delhi Govt Directs Schools to Not Participate in Events Sponsored by Firms Promoting Tobacco Products, News 18, 4 January 2021, accessed January 2021
  10. S. Chapman & S. Shatenstein, The ethics of the cash register: taking tobacco research dollars, Tobacco Control, 2001;1-:1-2, 10.1136/tc.10.1.1
  11. K. Maguire, University accepts tobacco ‘blood money’, The Guardian, 5 December 2000, accessed April 2020
  12. Action on Smoking and Health, BMJ Editor resigns from Nottingham University over BAT blood money, Ash press release, 18 May 2001, accessed April 2020
  13. abUnion of Concerned Scientists, Philip Morris Funds University Research – with Strings Attached, UCS website, 12 October 2017, accessed April 2020
  14. UVA Today, Philip Morris USA Supports Medical Research and Business Leadership with $25 Million Gift to U.Va., press release, 9 February 2007, archived 5 July 2007, accessed July 2020