CSR Strategy

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Corporate social responsibility (CSR) refers to activity whereby socially-harmful companies set their own minimum standards for social performance, enabling them to externalise their costs onto societies and consumers while passing themselves off as socially responsible.1 Often though, this is mainly a public relations exercise, without any real changes in business practices. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines CSR measures in the context of the tobacco industry as the promotion of “voluntary measures as an effective way to address tobacco control and create an illusion of being a ‘changed’ company and to establish partnerships with health interests.” More information on WHO tobacco industry tactic definitions can be found on our page WHO Definitions of Tobacco Industry Tactics.

CSR has been pioneered over the last two decades by the oil, chemical and tobacco industries. For example, oil companies have been presenting themselves as environmentally friendly and transparent, leading to an accusation of “greenwashing”, which is defined in the dictionary as “disinformation disseminated by an organisation so as to present an environmentally responsible image”.2

By the late 1990s, after suffering significant defeat in the courts costing them billions as a result of the Master Settlement Agreement, the tobacco industry also started introducing CSR policies to enhance its reputation. Since then, CSR has been used strategically to try and prevent effective government regulation to reduce tobacco consumption and promote other policy outcomes that directly work against public welfare.1 Tobacco companies have attempted to avoid legislative regulation by offering voluntary forms of corporate governance instead. PR Companies such as KPMG, have an important role in advising and developing CSR strategies. These exercises are cynically motivated: previously secret documents from the tobacco archives illustrate how the tobacco industry was advised to use dialogue to break the “confrontational postures” of special interest groups. In 2000, for example, John Sharkey, who had worked in the tobacco industry for 20 years including for British American Tobacco (BAT), Philip Morris International (PMI) and Japan Tobacco International (JTI), advised his industry colleagues that the tobacco industry “must be seen to be listening, must be seen to be trying to fix things, and above all must engage in continuous dialogue. Continuous dialogue makes outright opposition much less easy or, at least, seem much less sensible and more political”.3 Research by the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath has also shown, from analysis of BAT and Philip Morris leaked documents, that the tobacco industry uses a wide range of CSR tactics to:

  • broker access to public officials
  • influence policy preparation
  • break up opposing political coalitions
  • rebuild the company’s reputation for instance:
    • as a provider of reliable information
    • as a platform of voluntary regulation1

For more examples, see a list of pages in the category CSR Strategy.

WHO: Tobacco Industry CSR is an Inherent Contradiction

CSR is an increasingly important tool for companies trying to improve their image. However, there is no widely agreed framework for CSR which specifies minimum standards of social performance – even though public institutions such as the European Commission have tried.14 This creates an opportunity for a company to present itself as socially responsible, regardless of social, health and environmental harms it may perpetrate. This ambiguity has allowed tobacco companies to develop CSR programmes even though tobacco use is the world’s leading cause of preventable death. Tobacco-related deaths are projected to rise to 8.3 million people in 2030 (from 5.4 million in 2005) as the activities of multinational tobacco companies spread the smoking epidemic to developing countries.1

In places where tobacco companies are not permitted to advertise or promote their products by law, engaging in corporate social responsibility activities offers an alternative route to reach various audiences. However, such activities may be a violation to The World Health Organisation (WHO)’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). The Guidelines to article 5.3 of the Convention are quite specific on this point, and state the following:

  • The tobacco industry conducts activities described as socially responsible to distance its image from the lethal nature of the product it produces and sells or to interfere with the setting and implementation of public health policies.  Activities that are described as “socially responsible” by the tobacco industry, aiming at the promotion of tobacco consumption, is a marketing as well as a public relations strategy that falls within the Convention’s definition of advertising, promotion and sponsorship.
  • The corporate social responsibility of the tobacco industry is, according to WHO, an inherent contradiction, as industry’s core functions are in conflict with the goals of public health policies with respect to tobacco control.

And under ”Recommendations” it says:

  • 1 Parties should ensure that all branches of government and the public are informed and made aware of the true purpose and scope of activities described as socially responsible performed by the tobacco industry.
  • 2 Parties should not endorse, support, form partnerships with or participate in activities of the tobacco industry described as socially responsible.
  • 3 Parties should not allow public disclosure by the tobacco industry or any other person acting on its behalf of activities described as socially responsible or of the expenditures made for these activities, except when legally required to report on such expenditures, such as in an annual report.5

CSR as a Tobacco Industry Strategy

Corporate social responsibility activities and public statements directly support the achievement of tobacco industry goals. Historical examples, below, and academic analysis show that CSR has been used as an effective political strategy by tobacco companies, to build support for policy positions that favour tobacco industry interests, and to weaken opposition. CSR also serves to facilitate access to policymakers, enhance companies’ reputations as a source of credible information and disincentivize evidence-based tobacco control interventions.6

Stakeholder Engagement and Dialogue: “Good Governance”

On the advice of external public relations consultants, the use of dialogue between a company and its major stakeholders has become a key public relations (PR) strategy. The argument is fairly simple: if the workings of business could be seen as open and transparent, then such businesses would not be suspected of having anything to hide.

In the late 1990s, Philip Morris (now Philip Morris International and Philip Morris USA) and then British American Tobacco (BAT) initiated a series of stakeholder engagement meetings as part of a concerted campaign to rebrand themselves as responsible tobacco companies.789

A few years later, BAT launched a website called BATresponsibility.eu to highlight BAT’s first EU Social Reporting cycle. It was a result of stakeholder consultation sessions facilitated by Pavel Telička, the former EU Commissioner responsible for Health and Consumer Protection issues between September 2006 and January 2007. BAT has periodically undertaken further dialogue sessions, most recently in 2010. In 2013 the site has ceased to exist. The final dialogue session was organised by auditing firm Bureau Veritas and facilitator Acona; the slogan was “CSR is all about managing risk and opportunity”.10

In 2020, BAT rebranded across its corporate website and publications, using the slogan, “A Better Tomorrow” and a rainbow-colour scheme. Accompanying the rebrand, BAT launched  its “Environmental, Social and Governance” (ESG) framework, which included the stated goals of “reducing the health impact of [its] business” (harms of tobacco products), “excellence in environmental management”, “delivering a positive social impact” (supply chain) and “robust corporate governance”.11 Philip Morris International (PMI), Japan Tobacco International (JTI) and Imperial Brands all also publish reports that detail their sustainability, corporate governance and harm reduction strategies.

Divide and Rule

The tobacco industry’s self-proclaimed desire for openness and dialogue is a PR strategy which is intended to co-opt the opposition or split it with a deliberate “divide and rule” strategy. The TobaccoTactics page on Project Sunrise, for instance, shows that in 1996, Philip Morris developed a plan to “drive a wedge between anti-groups.” Having studied 600 internal industry documents about the project, researchers concluded that Philip Morris’ intention was “explicitly to divide and conquer the tobacco control movement by forming relationships with what it considered ‘moderate’ tobacco control individuals and organisations.”

The tobacco industry deliberately tried to position itself as the rational voice in the smoking debate. Researchers argue that “Philip Morris sought to strip some tobacco control advocates – those who rejected its offer of partnership – of public credibility by characterising them as extremists”.

Partnerships and Good Corporate Citizenship

Through partnerships with other organisations, tobacco companies try to enhance their reputation as a good corporate citizen, involved in governance. Some of those partnerships have a direct link to a company’s policy on CSR.

BAT for instance subscribes to the Institute of Business Ethics, a charity encouraging high standards of business behaviour based on ethical values. The Institute helped the company with developing policies on governance and transparency, and with the publishing of BAT’s Social Report.

With other partnership projects, the benefits for the tobacco industry are more indirect.

Imperial Tobacco (now Imperial Brands), for instance, was one of the founders of a campaign set up to encourage individuals, companies and local groups to clean up after themselves. McDonald’s and Wrigley (fast food and chewing gum) are the other two companies involved in “Love Where You Live“. The fact that this campaign was set up by three major waste and litter producers could be construed as “greenwashing“.

The campaign is coordinated by Keep Britain Tidy, an environmental campaign group with over 50 years of experience. The UK government Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is the fifth partner in Keep Britain Tidy. When asked about DEFRA’s ability to make the tobacco industry take responsibility for post-consumer waste, the government minister responsible stated that waste tobacco filters were “not included in [its] list priorities”. Instead, it said, “progress on the industry’s voluntary approach to litter reduction will be monitored”, and specifically pointed to the partnership between the tobacco industry and Keep Britain Tidy as an example.12 This partnership is an example of the tobacco industry using CSR as an effective strategy to promote voluntary self-regulation in place of policy intervention. The page CSR: Imperial and Love Where You Live explains that the involvement of the government, effectively helping to position Imperial as “a concerned corporate citizen”, could very well constitute a FCTC violation.

Philanthropy and Sponsorship

Another way for companies to project a responsible and socially-invested brand image is by giving money to worthy causes. As part of its public relations, CSR and related corporate social investment (CSI) programmes, the tobacco industry has a long history of making philanthropic donations.

For example, one undated internal Philip Morris document records that the company has concentrated on supporting projects in three areas: the arts, higher education, and hunger and nutrition. It noted that “since 1958, Philip Morris has been among the strongest corporate supporters of the arts”.13 In the late 1990s, the company announced a $100 million donation to fight hunger.14

Collectively, the top four transnational tobacco companies contribute millions in annual funding to charities. In 2018 alone, the Altria Group, parent company of Marlboro distributor and manufacturer Philip Morris USA, donated US$5.6 million to environmental sustainability organisations. Other notable organisations included in the company’s corporate charitable giving disclosure included the Smithsonian Institute-owned National Museum of African American History & Culture, Gay Pride Virginia, Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the American Red Cross.15 JTI reports on its website that it spent more than US$53 million on “investments in the community” in 2018.16

The tobacco industry also attempts to enhance its reputation, and gain legitimacy, by funding universities. In 2000, Nottingham University elicited scrutiny for its decision to accept UK£3.8 million from BAT to establish an International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility.1718 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.19

BAT is not alone in its attempts to gain credibility by funding universities. Duke University has a history of taking tobacco money, from 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 2019.20 More information on Altria’s historic contributions to VCU and the University of Virginia can be found on our page on Altria.

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. Visit our page on Influencing Science for more information.

Tobacco companies also fund specific university-based programmes and activities. For example, in May 2011, Durham University was criticised for accepting a £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.

Relevant TobaccoTactics Resources

TCRG Research


  1. abcdeG. Fooks, A. Gilmore, J. Collin et al., The limits of corporate social responsibility: techniques of neutraliztion, stakeholder management and political CSR, J Bus Ethics, 2013;112(2):283-299, doi: 10.1007/s10551-012-1250-5
  2. Concise English Dictionary, Definition of “Greenwash”, 10th Edition, 1999
  3. John Sharkey, Tobacco Industry’s Response to the New Social and Legal Environment, Truth Tobacco Industry Documents, 26 August 2000, lfyj0054
  4. See for instance: Commission of the European Communities, Promoting a European framework for Corporate Social Responsibility, Green Paper, Brussels, 18 July 2001, accessed April 2012, and same author, Implementing the Partnership for Growth and Jobs: Making Europe a Pole of Excellence on Corporate Social Responsibility, March 2006, accessed April 2012
  5. World Health Organisation, Guidelines for implementation of Article 5.3 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control: on the protection of public health policies with respect to tobacco control from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry, point 3, 2008, accessed April 2020
  6. G. Fooks & A. Gilmore, Corporate Philanthropy, Political Influence, and Health Policy, PLoS ONE, 2013, 8(11):5, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080864
  7. BAT, The Project – The Way Forward, 15 November 1999, Truth Tobacco Industry Documents, 15 November 1999, rzyy0192
  8. British American Tobacco Company Limited, Draft Role Profile, Stakeholder Planning & Development Manager, Truth Tobacco Industry Documents, September 2 1999, lhlf0195
  9. Philip Morris, Philip Morris calls for constructive dialogue – “It’s time to talk”, Truth Tobacco Industry Documents, 13 October 1999, pyyc0206
  10. British American Tobacco, Stakeholder Dialogue 2010, batresponsibility.eu, accessed October 2011
  11. British American Tobacco, Our supporting ESG priorities: A best-in-class approach, BAT website, 26 March 2020, accessed April 2020
  12. Litter: Tobacco:Written question – 29305, www.parliament.uk, 23 March 2020, accessed April 2020
  13. Philip Morris Companies Inc. Corporate Philanthropy Summary, Truth Tobacco Industry Documents, undated, myhk0045
  14. James B . Hyatt, Philanthropy Journal Online, Corporate Giving – Philip Morris launches $100M anti-hunger drive, Truth Tobacco Industry Documents, 10 March 1998, tzkd0094
  15. The Altria Group, Altria Grantees 2018, Altria website, 2018, accessed March 2020
  16. Japan Tobacco International, We care about our communities around the world, JTI website, undated, accessed April 2020
  17. 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
  18. K. Maguire, University accepts tobacco ‘blood money’, The Guardian, 5 December 2000, accessed April 2020
  19. Action on Smoking and Health, BMJ Editor resigns from Nottingham University over BAT blood money, Ash press release, 18 May 2001, accessed April 2020
  20. Union of Concerned Scientists, Philip Morris Funds University Research – with Strings Attached, UCS website, 12 October 2017, accessed April 2020