Trading “Philanthropy” for Favors: Tobacco Industry CSR During COVID-19

In 2011, sociologist Gary Fooks and tobacco control researcher Silvy Peeters made an observation that doubled as a foreboding prediction: “…tobacco industry corporate social responsibility thrives in disaster-hit regions of the world.”

Fast-forward to 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has rendered every region of the world “disaster-hit” and tobacco companies’ donations of money and equipment are indeed thriving—to the ultimate detriment of public health. With the world facing its biggest public health threat in generations, there has never been a more opportune time to put an end to the tobacco industry’s so-called corporate social responsibility.

Understanding tobacco industry CSR and its purpose

While providing donations and other aid sounds like a positive thing—and certainly can be in other sectors—oftentimes the tobacco industry isn’t interested in true philanthropy. When tobacco companies engage in so-called corporate social responsibility (CSR), many times they’re looking to get something in return, whether it’s a PR boost for their tarnished reputations or access to policymakers.

For tobacco companies, CSR is nothing more than a business strategy that directly contradicts the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). Article 5.3 of this international treaty aims to prevent the industry from meddling in and influencing tobacco control policy, so the tobacco industry had to find another way to get a foot in the door with decision-makers. Making donations and sponsoring initiatives, it found, could be a way to get closer to policymakers and lobby for its own interests.

Former tobacco industry executive John Sharkey told colleagues that tobacco companies, “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.”

Public health and tobacco control researchers Laura Tesler and Ruth Malone described tobacco industry CSR a little more frankly: a “tax-deductible form of lobbying.”

Trading “philanthropy” for favors during the pandemic

Tobacco use has been associated with increased severity and death in hospitalized COVID-19 patients—striking another blow to the industry’s already tainted reputation. Further, tobacco companies are facing a potential drop in sales as governments institute lockdowns and bans to slow the spread of the virus and as smokers consider quitting or cutting back to protect their health during the pandemic.

Examples of recent COVID-19-related CSR have been documented in 30 countries. And tobacco companies are already asking for favors in return—mostly related to relaxation of marketing restrictions and newly instituted tobacco bans.

This June in Indonesia, Sampoerna, Philip Morris International’s (PMI) local affiliate, urged the local government in Bali to roll back restrictions on outdoor advertising. Directly preceding Sampoerna’s request: a reminder of the company’s previous CSR contributions.

In India, Dharmpal Satyapal Ltd., a large smokeless tobacco manufacturer, used the same tactic, mentioning its recent monetary donations to the Prime Minister’s CARES fund in an affidavit arguing against a COVID-related smokeless tobacco ban.

Fighting back, protecting public health and holding the industry accountable

During times of crisis, it may seem counterintuitive to turn down financial support from tobacco CSR. Fortunately, there are other ways governments can make the tobacco industry pay for the damages it causes while avoiding becoming indebted to tobacco companies for their CSR efforts. Governments should:

Reject all CSR donations from the tobacco industry.

Instead of accepting CSR donations and becoming beholden to tobacco companies, a more equitable approach is to recover the costs of the harms caused by the tobacco industry—including expenses related to more severe COVID-19 outcomes. This can be done by increasing tobacco taxes or imposing a surcharge based on the “polluter pays” principle. Funds may be used to finance COVID-19 recovery plans and health care costs, and offset any would-have-been CSR donations.

Openly rejecting CSR donations from tobacco companies has two other benefits: It conveys a government’s integrity and intent to protect public policy from industry interference, and damages the reputation of the industry. In Ukraine, for example, PMI recently donated nearly U.S. $400,000 to the charity fund Health for All, which sought to distribute the money to various government agencies. While the head of the fund publicly thanked PMI, both the Ministry of Health and the President’s Office rejected the money.

Write the tobacco industry out of CSR bills.

In the Philippines, legislators are working on passing a bill that would encourage and reward the inclusion of CSR activities in companies’ operations in the country. However, advocates are working to exclude tobacco from this bill, nixing future opportunities for tobacco companies to promote their donations and get access to policymakers.

Ban all tobacco industry CSR outright.

Articles 5.3 and 13 of the FCTC provide justification for this move. Per the FCTC, CSR is considered “tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship” (TAPS) which must be banned comprehensively. The treaty calls on Parties to the FCTC to de-normalize and not endorse, support, form partnerships with or participate in tobacco industry activities described as socially responsible. In countries where banning CSR is constitutionally impossible, Parties should prohibit any public disclosure or promotion of tobacco industry CSR.

Instead of actually changing its harmful business practices and potentially jeopardizing profits, the tobacco industry is using CSR to distract from the damage it causes so it can continue with business as usual, even as the pandemic wreaks havoc on global health and economies.

In these unprecedented times, business as usual may be more dangerous than ever.