Gary Fooks and colleagues undertook a review of tobacco industry documents and show that policies on corporate social responsibility can enable access to and dialogue with policymakers at the highest level.
Recent attempts by large tobacco companies to represent themselves as socially responsible have been widely dismissed as image management. Existing research supports such claims by pointing to the failings and misleading nature of corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. However, few studies have focused in depth on what tobacco companies hoped to achieve through CSR or reflected on the extent to which these ambitions have been realised.
Methods and Findings
Iterative searching relating to CSR strategies was undertaken of internal British American Tobacco (BAT) documents, released through litigation in the US. Relevant documents (764) were indexed and qualitatively analysed. In the past decade, BAT has actively developed a wide-ranging CSR programme. Company documents indicate that one of the key aims of this programme was to help the company secure access to policymakers and, thereby, increase the company's chances of influencing policy decisions. Taking the UK as a case study, this paper demonstrates the way in which CSR can be used to renew and maintain dialogue with policymakers, even in ostensibly unreceptive political contexts. In practice, the impact of this political use of CSR is likely to be context specific; depending on factors such as policy élites' understanding of the credibility of companies as a reliable source of information.
The findings suggest that tobacco company CSR strategies can enable access to and dialogue with policymakers and provide opportunities for issue definition. CSR should therefore be seen as a form of corporate political activity. This underlines the need for broad implementation of Article 5.3 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Measures are needed to ensure transparency of interactions between all parts of government and the tobacco industry and for policy makers to be made more aware of what companies hope to achieve through CSR.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
In the past, companies and multinational corporations were judged on the profits they made. Nowadays, though, much is made of corporate social responsibility (CSR). CSR is the commitment by business to behave ethically and to contribute to economic development while improving the quality of life of the workforce, their families, the local community, and society at large. Put simply, companies and corporations now endeavor to show that they have a positive impact on the environment, consumers, employees, and society in addition to making money for their shareholders. Large tobacco companies are no exception. British American Tobacco (BAT, the world's second largest publicly traded tobacco company), for example, began working on a wide-ranging CSR program more than a decade ago. Given that tobacco is responsible for an estimated 5.4 million deaths worldwide annually, this program was initially met with hostility and dismissed as an image management exercise. However, large parts of the investment and CSR communities now approve of BAT's CSR program, which has won numerous awards.
Why Was This Study Done?
But what do BAT and other tobacco companies actually hope to achieve through their CSR initiatives and how successful have they been in achieving these aims? Few studies have addressed these important questions. In particular, there has been little research into the extent to which tobacco companies use CSR initiatives as a form of corporate political activity that can help them gain “access” to policymakers and define the legitimate concerns and optimal alternatives of public policy (“issue definition”). Access is defined as taking place when policymakers consider the views of policy advocates such as tobacco company employees and is a crucial component of issue definition, which refers to the strategies adopted by bodies such as multinational corporations to influence the policy agenda by defining what issues public policy should concern itself with and how it should approach them. In this case study, the researchers explore whether BAT's CSR program works as a form of corporate political activity by systematically examining internal BAT documents made publicly available as a result of US litigation. Specifically, the researchers examine BAT's efforts through its CSR program to reestablish access with the UK Department of Health following the department's decision in the late 1990s to restrict contact with major tobacco companies.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
Using iterative searching, the researchers identified 764 documents in the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library (a large collection of internal tobacco company documents released as a result of US litigation cases) that contain information relevant to BAT's CSR strategies. Their analysis of these documents indicates that one of the key aims of the CSR program actively developed over the past decade by BAT was to help secure access to policymakers and shows how BAT used CSR to renew and maintain dialogue with policymakers at a time when contact between government and tobacco companies was extremely restricted. The documents also show that BAT employees used CSR initiatives as a means of issue definition to both optimize the probability of subsequent discussions taking place and to frame their content. Finally, the documents illustrate how BAT used its CSR program to expand the number of access points across government, thereby providing BAT with more opportunities to meet and talk to officials.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that CSR is a form of corporate political activity that potentially has important implications for public health given the documented impact of the political activity of tobacco companies in delaying and blocking health-related tobacco control policies. In practice, the impact of the political use of CSR is likely to be context specific and will depend on factors such as whether senior policymakers regard companies as reliable sources of information. Importantly, these findings underline the need for broad implementation of Article 5.3 of the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), an international treaty that calls for the introduction of multiple measures to reduce tobacco consumption, including tobacco advertizing bans and relevant taxation policies. Article 5.3 aims to protect public-health policies on tobacco control from tobacco industry influence. The findings of this study indicate that implementation of Article 5.3 will require measures that ensure transparency in interactions between all parts of government and the tobacco industry and will need an increased awareness across government of what tobacco companies hope to achieve through CSR.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001076.
The Corporate Responsibility (CORE) coalition, an alliance of voluntary organizations, trade unions, and companies, maintains a Web site that contains useful material on corporate social responsibility
The European Coalition for Corporate Justice (ECCJ) promotes corporate accountability by bringing together national platforms of civil society organizations (including NGOs, trade unions, consumer advocacy groups, and academic institutions) from all over Europe
The Legacy Tobacco Documents Library is a public, searchable database of tobacco company internal documents detailing their advertising, manufacturing, marketing, sales, and scientific activities
The World Health Organization provides information about the dangers of tobacco (in several languages), details of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (in several languages), and guidelines for the implementation of Article 5.3 of the FCTC
The Framework Convention Alliance provides more information about the FCTC
For information about tobacco industry influence on policy, see the 2009 World Health Organization report Tobacco interference with tobacco control