CSR: Health

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Corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes with a focus on health, both public and personal, are a key aspect of the tobacco industry’s CSR activity. Few tactics are more “cynical” or more of an “inherent contradiction”, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).1

CSR in the field of health allows the industry to gain reputational legitimacy,2 access policy makers3 and challenge public health bodies and tobacco control advocates through a “divide and conquer” strategy.4

Health CSR in action: Stakeholder management and accessing elites

Project Sunrise is one example of the divide and conquer strategy. In the 1990s, Philip Morris (now Philip Morris USA and Philip Morris International) made a concerted effort to form relationships with moderate tobacco control groups in order to position itself as reasonable and engaged with public health concerns such as youth anti-smoking campaigns. One of the larger intentions was to divide tobacco control advocates,5 as revealed by a 1996 memo written by Philip Morris Policy Issues Director, Joshua Slavitt, that read:

“[t]he rapid growth in resources, membership and successes has created a sense of invincibility within the [Anti-tobacco industry] that may blind organizations to carefully orchestrated efforts by the tobacco industry and its allies to accelerate turf wars and exacerbate philosophical schisms (smoking and ETS, vs. youth and marketing)”.6

This type of “stakeholder management”, that is exerting influence via tacit lobbying and neutralising opposition,7 is a major benefit of health-related CSR programmes to the industry. Youth smoking prevention is a well-known example. On Altria’s youth smoking prevention web page, the company declares that “Altria is committed to being part of the solution”.8 Analysis of industry documents shows that, historically, the intention of these campaigns was to prevent tobacco control legislation, paint tobacco control advocates as extremists and improve the reputation of the tobacco industry.9

Industry associations with smoking cessation or reduction initiatives through organisations like e-cigarette Trade Associations are used by the industry to access elites via lobbying and promote its own youth smoking prevention programmes. Despite cultivating an image of concern for public health, tobacco companies are still actively targeting cigarettes and newer nicotine and tobacco products (including e-cigarettes and nicotine pouches) at young people, particularly in countries lacking robust tobacco control legislation.10

Health CSR in action: Reputation management and public health alignment

Selective acknowledgement of the harms of tobacco by tobacco companies and investment in harm reduction research and development, is in part a health CSR strategy. The Foundation for a Smoke-free World (FSFW), which is wholly funded by Philip Morris International (PMI), is a prominent example of harm reduction science as corporate social responsibility. Despite the tobacco industry’s history of denying the negative health impacts of smoking,11 PMI now invest US$80 million per year in FSFW and say that they are committed to a ‘Smoke Free World’. PMI’s Vice President of Strategic and Scientific Communications, Moira Gilchrist, said in her presentation at the 2020 Global Forum on Nicotine that “this leopard can change its spots”, referring to tobacco industry involvement in harm reduction. She also attacked tobacco regulation, describing article 5.3 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) as “alarming” and accusing tobacco control groups critical of the industry of “scientific censorship”.12 These statements are similar to the tactics of PMI’s Project Sunrise, which sought to divide the tobacco control community.

The ongoing public health debates around the role of tobacco harm reduction products in smoking cessation has presented an opportunity for the tobacco industry to align itself with public health objectives. The industry has sought to renormalize its image and gain legitimacy by producing newer nicotine and tobacco products and funding research that promotes the use of these products. The FSFW funds harm reduction research via grants to researchers and by funding private research institutes like The Centre for Research Excellence: Indigenous Sovereignty and Smoking (COREISS) and Centre for Health Research and Education (CHRE). However, analysis of FSFW’s tax returns shows that almost a third (31%, US$24.52 million) of its US$80 million budget in 2019 was spent on salaries, PR, legal and other fees,13 indicating that the Foundation is operating as a PR arm for PMI, rather than a legitimate scientific funding organisation.

The bulk of PMI’s business, and that of the other large transnational tobacco companies, remains the sale of tobacco. At the PMI 2019 shareholder meeting, Louis C. Camilleri, Chairman of the Board told shareholders: “Our combustible tobacco portfolio remains the foundation of our business, supported by pricing and other industry fundamentals consistent with historical trends”.14 The company shipped 700 billion cigarettes worldwide in 2019. 15 British American Tobacco (BAT) CEO Jack Bowles told investors the same year: “Our combustible business continues to drive the financial performance of the group and we are performing well”.16

COVID-19: a case study in health CSR

Health-related CSR has been at the forefront of the tobacco industry’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tobacco companies have used the situation to promote themselves as pharmaceutical and public health organisations, rather than cigarette manufacturers. For example, Kentucky BioProcessing, a wholly owned subsidiary of BAT, has received international press coverage for its ongoing development of a coronavirus vaccine using tobacco plants.17 Every major tobacco company has made donations of either money, food or medical equipment (including ventilators)18 to COVID-19 relief efforts.19 PMI stated that they have donated over US$30 million during the crisis.20 These figures are far outweighed by the economic costs of tobacco as a result of tax avoidance21 and the impacts of smoking on healthcare systems.22

Scientists with historical links to the tobacco industry, including Jean-Pierre Changeux and Konstantinos Poulas, have published pre-print research papers that hypothesise a protective effect of nicotine for COVID-19.2324 This has helped legitimise the tobacco industry’s public health image and created confusion around the harms of smoking, despite evidence that repeatedly demonstrates increased disease severity in smokers with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus strain that causes COVID-19) infection.2526

Such CSR behaviour during the pandemic has been described as a “Trojan Horse”, gifted by the tobacco industry with less-than-altruistic intentions. The tactic has helped Big Tobacco to ‘wash’ its image, lobby policy makers and challenge tobacco regulation, including the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, as governments desperate for assistance are forced to engage with tobacco companies.27

The COVID-19 monitoring briefings produced by STOP are available on the COVID-19 Tobacco Tactics page. These feature detailed examples of tobacco industry CSR and associated behaviour during the pandemic.

Relevant Links

Tobacco Tactics Resources

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