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Big Tobacco uses Corporate Social Responsibility Awards to polish its tarnished image

A guest post by Simon Ngongoi, health promotion student at Curtin University

Introduction

The tobacco industry has been recognised as the leading corporate vector of preventable disease and death (Lee et al., 2012). Research has confirmed cigarettes are a lethal product that kill up to two thirds of their consumers when used as the manufacturer intends (Malone, 2020). Bauer et al. (2014) stated that smoking is the world’s most significant and preventable cause of premature death. The tobacco industry causes more than 8 million deaths annually and leads tens of millions more to suffer from avoidable illnesses such as 16 different types of cancers, cardiovascular disease, and serious lung diseases (WHO, 2021). And according to Gilmore et al. (2015), tobacco-caused deaths are estimated to rise to more than 8.3 million by 2030. It has also been estimated that the global economic burden of tobacco smoking is US$ 1.4 trillion annually (The World Health Organisation report on the global tobacco epidemic, 2021). Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death in Australia, responsible for 9.3% of the total burden of disease, 13% of all deaths and 5% of chronic diseases such as cancer, respiratory complications, and cardiovascular health issues (Roche et al., 2021). In 2016, it was estimated that a total of $388 billion is lost over the working life of the Australian population due to smoking-caused lost productivity (Roche et al., 2021). In similar a study published in 2019, the social and economic cost burden of tobacco use in Australia was estimated to be more than $136.9 billion annually (Grogan & Banks, 2020).

According to Kamiński et al. (2020), smokers are at a higher risk of experiencing the severe health impact of Covid-19, leading to hospitalisation or even death compared to non-smokers. Although tobacco smoking mainly affects current and past users, it also places the non-smoking population at a greater risk of poor health through exposure to second-hand smoke (Banks et al., 2015). The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that globally, almost half of all children breathe air polluted by tobacco smoke each year. It further estimates that second-hand smoke is responsible for 1.2 million deaths in the adult population and 65,000 deaths in children while causing further adverse health complications to the survivors (WHO, 2021). Re-energising efforts to reduce tobacco use in Australia and globally is critical to reducing the economic, health, and social burden of tobacco use, is a significant contributor to non-communicable diseases, accounting for about 71% of deaths globally (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2021). According to Sisay (2020), an estimated half a billion people alive today will die prematurely because of tobacco use. About one billion deaths from tobacco use alone are estimated to occur in the 21st century. An estimated 80 % of these deaths will occur in low and middle-income countries, including those in the African continent and Southeast Asian region (Bilano et al., 2015)

Since early 1950, the tobacco industry has faced undeniable and compelling scientific evidence of the harms associated with smoking which appeared in major peer-reviewed medical journals and throughout the general media (Brandt, 2012). According to Rothman (2012), the tobacco industry introduced sophisticated public relations approaches to erode, condemn, confuse, distort, and undermine the emerging scientific findings, which threatened to destroy the tobacco industry’s image and profit. One of the tactics used by the tobacco industry was the production of ‘scientific’ research designed to create controversy and uncertainty, while maintaining its public credibility (Brandt, 2012).

The tobacco industry also employed skilled public relations professionals to manipulate scientific results, society, and culture to create a favourable environment for their products (Ulucanlar et al., 2014). Across the globe, the tobacco industry continues to apply marketing and public relations tactics to promote both its traditional cigarettes and new tobacco products (Brandt, 2012). To maintain and attract more tobacco users the tobacco industry continues to work towards abolishing effective existing tobacco control legislation, delaying emerging tobacco control legislation, and opposing all other tobacco control measures designed to protect the public from the many adverse harms associated with tobacco use and exposure to second hand smoke (Flor et al., 2021).

In recent years, the tobacco industry has implemented sophisticated Cooperate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives in an attempt to improve its public image, influence and set agendas, and gain access to policymakers that shape public health policies to favour the industry’s interests (TobaccoTactics, 2021). The WHO report on the global tobacco epidemic in 2021 addressed new and emerging tobacco products, revealing the tobacco industry continues to fund scientific research and make donations to political parties and third-party lobby groups such as trade associations and think tanks to implement public relations campaigns, and distort scientific facts about the harms of smoking. The tobacco industry also uses CSR projects in low and middle-income countries to set social and economic development agendas for the alleviation of poverty through charitable donations to facilitate access to political elites who can influence tobacco policies that suit the interests of the tobacco industry (Who.int, 2021).

In the 21st century, tobacco companies have mastered the art of using social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, to aggressively publish their CSR initiatives, as well as on their websites (Craig et al., 2020). According to Islam et al. (2021), these tactics are designed to influence existing and potential stakeholders. The CSR projects are a business strategy to polish their damaged image, portray themselves as a socially responsible industry, and gain legitimacy as partners working with governments and health officers to implement tobacco control and provide alternative “reduced risk tobacco products” to the public (Barauskaite & Streimikiene, 2020). Yet, in reality the tobacco industry is only interested in maintaining an upward trajectory in profit and product diversification, while undermining effective tobacco control measures and stopping or delaying future tobacco control legislation and policies from developed countries to the emerging markets (TobaccoTactics, 2021). This study examines the Big Tobacco companies’ activities on social media, with a specific focus on how they use Twitter to promote CSR activities including awards and recognitions.

Method

In August 2021, the author searched the leading websites of the tobacco companies using the Google search engine to identify Twitter accounts and built-in search engines of the prominent big tobacco companies. The in-built search engine of their Twitter accounts was identified to ensure the official Twitter account was accessed rather than fake accounts with similar names. The tobacco companies included in this study are Phillip Morris International (PMI), British American Tobacco (BAT), Imperial Brands, Japan Tobacco International (JTI), Altria (parent company of PMI USA), and Reynolds American (a subsidiary of BAT) to study the total number of awards and recognitions each tobacco company claimed to have won or been awarded for their CSR programs published on their Twitter platforms. Other recognitions from third parties such as certifications received by each company published on their Twitter platform have also been included in this study. The author investigated awards and recognitions tweeted on the Big Tobacco companies Twitter platforms rather than other social media platforms because Twitter is a popular social network used by tobacco companies with a large number of followers. Shown on figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Total number of Twitter followers for each tobacco company.

Twitter users create social networks by following the Twitter accounts of others. The Twitter network is estimated to have 192 million daily active users and about 330 million active users monthly (Statista, 2021). Many people use the Twitter platform to disseminate short messages and videos referred to as tweets, and receive or give feedback called ‘likes’ and share the same information via the retweet function. The author collected tweets related to awards, recognitions, ranks, and certifications that have been tweeted by each of the Big Tobacco companies’ twitter platforms from 30 September 2021 to 01 January 2019. Although China National Tobacco Corporation holds the largest share of the global tobacco market, (Figure 2) it has not been included in this study because it does not have an active Twitter account. 

Figure 2: Cigarette market share worldwide as of 2019, by company
Retrieved from: Statista. (2021). Global cigarette market share by company 2019 | Statista. 

The author reviewed and analysed each tobacco company’s Twitter posts that promoted awards or recognitions. Details about each award and recognition were entered into a spreadsheet and manually coded into six categories: employment/HR practices, environmental and corporate sustainability, donations, innovation and science, partnership, marketing, and child labour and human rights.

Result

A total of 182 awards and recognitions were posted on the official Twitter accounts of the six tobacco companies between 1 January 2019 and 30 September 2021. Retweeted awards or recognitions were recorded only once to ensure accuracy. The awards and recognitions collected from the six tobacco companies’ Twitter platforms were categorised into six themes employment/HR practices, environmental and corporate sustainability, donations, innovation and science, partnership, marketing, and child labour and human rights, shown in Table 1 below.

 Table 1: Number and category of awards and recognitions published on Twitter by each tobacco company.

Employment/HR practices (60%, n= 110) and environmental and corporate sustainability (27%, n=27) were the largest categories of awards and recognitions published on all the companies’ Twitter accounts. Whereas child labour and human rights (1%, n=2) and marketing (1%, n=2) awards and recognitions were the least published on the tobacco companies’ Twitter accounts, shown in figure 4 below.

Figure 4: Categories of awards and recognitions published by all the tobacco companies

The top three tobacco companies to publish their awards and recognitions on their Twitter accounts include Japan Tobacco International (27%, n=50), British American Tobacco (23%, n=42) and Phillip Morris International (21%, n=39). Meanwhile, Reynolds America (a subsidiary of BAT) (9%, n=17) and Imperial Brands (8%, n=15) published the lowest number of awards and recognitions on their Twitter accounts shown in the figure 5 below

Figure 5: Total number of awards and recognitions published by each company.

Almost all (94% n=171) of the posts from the six tobacco companies were categorised within three main topics: working towards environmental sustainability, promoting a culturally diverse workforce, and promoting smoke-free innovations/products. Apart from publishing awards and recognitions, the tobacco companies also published information suggesting that their alternative tobacco products have beneficial health effects (Popova & Ling, 2013). They appeared to promote these products heavily and criticised public health warnings about the dangers of vaping and heated tobacco products on their Twitter accounts. Across all the companies’ Twitter posts, the ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ of the post appeared to be lower compared to their follower’s interaction with the short videos and infographics posted on their Twitter platforms which generated a higher number of ‘likes’ and ‘views’. For example, one of PMI’s posted short videos that described their transformative smoke- free initiative had a total of 8,400 ‘views’, 51 ‘likes’ and 18 ‘retweets’.

Discussion

This study shows that the majority of awards and recognitions promoted on the Twitter platforms of major tobacco companies were “Top Employer Institute” awards for being the “best workplace”, and by the global environmental disclosure system for business & subnational governments (CDP) for environmental sustainability with its “Climate A List Recognitions”.

Figure 6: Examples of awards and recognitions promoted on the Twitter accounts of the tobacco companies.

The tobacco companies promote themselves as the “best workplace” and “environmentally sustainable” corporation on their Twitter platforms to attract and retain the employees, essential for their operation and growth. In recent annual reports by Reynolds America, PMI, Altria and British American Tobacco these companies have acknowledged that one of the significant business challenges they face is the inability to recruit and retain qualified employees because of the health and social problems attributed to the use of tobacco products (Daube, 2021). Hence, promoting such awards and recognitions on their Twitter platforms is designed to polish their image as socially and environmentally responsible to enable the recruitment and retention of  the best staff available globally to ensure the growth and success of their business (Islam et al., 2021). The tobacco companies also sponsor some of these awards and recognitions events (Figure 7). And some of the awards and recognitions can be awarded upon completion of a survey style application without any further requirements. The objective scoring criteria and validity of this process is not declared.

Figure 7: Examples of awards and recognitions sponsored by the tobacco companies.

Tobacco companies use their Twitter accounts to publish their CSR activities, in particular those that they claim to have gained as award or recognition to facilitate conventional political movements such as political access and constituency building. They then leverage CSR projects to exploit Low and Middle Income Countries’ (LMICs)’ urgent need for investment in social projects (Fooks et al., 2011). For example, the British American Tobacco’s CSR project to sponsor community water projects and PMI’s CSR sponsored education projects in tobacco farming areas of east Africa and South-East Asia (Gilmore et al., 2015). According to Peer (2018), internal industry documents reveal that tobacco companies used such activities to prevent proposed advertising bans in Sierra Leone and Uganda and weaken a tobacco control bill in Kenya. This study also indicates that the big tobacco companies use their Twitter accounts as a marketing channel to promote awards they have ‘won’, to win new awards or generate further recognition from the public. This marketing strategy is vital for tobacco companies to build relationships with current and potential consumers, stakeholders and governments, as well as improve their public image as being socially and economically responsible (Al Mubarak et al., 2019). However, evidence indicates that the big tobacco companies are only interested in expanding their business interests rather than keeping the public safe and healthy or protect the environment, which they claimed to be their objectives (Brandt, 2012).  The data presented also show that tobacco companies use their Twitter accounts to expose  existing and potential customers to new and addictive tobacco products through targeted advertising, claiming they are safer and potentially less harmful than cigarettes (Liang et al., 2015). They are fully aware that social media generally appeals to younger audiences (Liang et al., 2015). For example, PMI’s global scholarship program aimed at recruiting brilliant young employees who they hope will be the backbone of their future successful (Fitzpatrick et al., 2020). Analysis of each company’s Twitter account revealed that while these companies use common strategies, there are some differences in the way they use social media platforms. Set out below are some of the similarities and differences identified in this study.

Similarities

Despite the tobacco industry producing and selling addictive and lethal products that are responsible for the deaths of more than 8 million users globally each year, no tobacco company admitted responsibility on their Twitter platforms for the diseases and deaths their products have caused, and continue to cause, to society, governments and customers. All the tobacco companies in this study continue to exploit and capitalise on the vulnerability of governments to a range of serious challenges, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, high rates of unemployment and racial discrimination (Moran et al., 2017). The tobacco companies were consistent in presenting themselves as being “part of the solution” rather than the cause of the problem (Friedman et al., 2015). They promote CSR initiatives on their Twitter accounts in an attempt to polish their tarnished and deteriorating public image, gain access to and influence governments, and public health practitioners, and resist and undermine tobacco control measures designed to reduce the use of tobacco (Al Mubarak et al., 2019). While all the major tobacco companies vigorously compete among themselves for a share of the global market, they are also focused on maintaining their market values and profit (McDaniel et al., 2017). They also work as a united force to undermine tobacco control measures through lobbying for acceptance and sale of new and novel products that they claim to be safer and potentially less harmful without providing evidence for these claims (De Andrade et al., 2018). And they attempt to shift the tobacco control debate away from the public health sector to non-health sectors to gain social and economic outcomes for their products in countries with stringent tobacco control measures (Lee et al., 2016).

The tobacco companies’ lack of transparency, and denial of the scientific evidence about the adverse health effects of their products, has long been a tactic employed by this industry Brandt, 2012). They continue to undermine government and public health efforts to implement effective tobacco control measures, as they strive to addict new users, push new products, and keep their existing customers smoking (Who.int, 2021).  Tobacco companies strategically target the large untapped tobacco market in LMIC Sub Saharan African countries with their young, growing and blossoming middle-class populations (Acosta-Deprez et al., 2021). In LMICs, Big Tobacco hijacks the issues of tobacco smuggling, child labour, women rights, and LQBTI+ rights. The tobacco industry attempts to persuade governments that they are part of the solution while there is overwhelming evidence of their complicity in using child labour and engaging in growing the illegal tobacco trade. (Gilmore et al., 2015). Therefore, it is evident that CSR programs in these countries is purely a business strategy and are in no way related to the negative impacts of tobacco in Africa. This strategy is implemented despite the continued negative environmental, social and health impacts attributed to the tobacco companies (Gilmore et al., 2015).

All the big tobacco companies in this research use their Twitter accounts to promote their CSR activities aggressively. Japan Tobacco International’s water project in Zambia and Imperial Brands tree planting projects in Malawi, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Mozambique are leading examples (Apps.who.int, 2021). The tobacco companies also use their Twitter platforms to heavily and deliberately advertise their new and emerging products such as the heated products which they claimed to be “safer” or “smoke-free” compared to traditional cigarettes, yet the full health impact of these products and claims they aid smoking cessation remain unproven (Brandt, 2012). McDaniel et al. (2017) has stated that social media, especially Twitter, has become a marketing and public relations tool for tobacco companies to advertise their products and circumvent legislation banning or restricting tobacco companies from promoting their products on mainstream media such as the radio and television, particularly in developed countries.

Differences

The tobacco companies in this study had varying numbers of Twitter followers, however, they were consistent with the global size of the companies.  PMI had the highest number of Twitter followers (29,700), followed by British American Tobacco with 21,900 followers and Altria with 9,363 followers. The tobacco companies with the lowest number of Twitter followers were Imperial Brands with 6,922 followers, Japan Tobacco International with 6,363, and Reynolds American with 4,008. It is essential to identify the number of Twitter followers of these companies to understand the reach of their CSR activities, awards and recognitions they claimed to have won or been recognised for, published on their Twitter accounts. The higher number of followers implies that their Twitter posts will reach many people. The tobacco companies varied in the main topics they posted. Altria mainly published information on their Twitter accounts regarding tobacco smoking among adults. They claimed to strongly support legislation to raise the minimum age of purchase to 21 years for all tobacco products. While Reynolds America, a subsidiary of British American Tobacco, did not publish many posts on its Twitter accounts, and mostly retweeted British American tobacco posts. British American Tobacco was the only tobacco company tweeting about its Formula 1 sponsorship on its Twitter platform. And they also published information praising its scientists for the digital innovation of the “A Better Tomorrow” project. While PMI published information that criticised governments for allowing illegal tobacco trade, they also gave priority to publishing information that blames the peer-reviewed scientific evidence for confusing smokers that may be considering a switch to their “smoke free” products. Japan Tobacco International was the most active tobacco company, publishing Twitter posts almost daily. Most of the posts by Japan Tobacco International were about sustainability and the illegal tobacco trade. Among the six tobacco companies, Japan Tobacco International and PMI were the only tobacco companies to publish most of their information in short video posts on their Twitter accounts. The videos appeared to receive higher interaction ( ‘likes’, ‘retweets’ and ‘comment’), compared to posts that only contained text. Imperial Brands published information mainly regarding business transparency, including promoting its annual report for stakeholders to access and download.

Why promote CSR awards and recognitions on Twitter?.

Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are not adequately regulated by governments across the world (Salo, 2017). According to Salo (2017), tobacco companies are exploiting this poorly regulated channel of online communication to promote and benefit their business interests. The lack of proper regulation on social media such as Twitter has provided an opportunity for tobacco companies to promote their CSR activities that can potentially be misleading to the public (Dwivedi et al., 2021). Their social media communications are designed to create favourable support for the tobacco industry as a socially, ethically, economically and environmentally responsible business that works to empower and improve the communities in which they operate their business (McDaniel et al,. 2017). For example, this study shows that the largest number of awards and recognitions posted on Twitter were on topics of environmentally sustainable practices, and being a workplace that employs and respects employees’ diversity and inclusiveness.

However, According to Mishra et al. (2012), growing and manufacturing tobacco products contributes to significant environmental damage that results in water and air pollution, increase poverty and food insecurity, and encourages use of children for labour which further leads to adverse health impacts to society and increases the burden on health expenditure. None of the major tobacco companies tweeted about the negative and broader effects of growing and manufacturing tobacco products. Such one-sided tweets can mislead the public to think that tobacco companies are making efforts to create positive outcomes in society rather than significantly contributing to, or causing widespread damage. Globally, there is consensus that the tobacco industry creates significant negative social, environmental and health impact by the promotion and consumption of their products (Bilano et al., 2015). The tobacco companies have implemented CSR projects across the globe to improve their public image and corporate reputation, allowing them to increase profit, reduce employee turnover, and enhance competitive advantage (McDaniel et al,. 2017). Big Tobacco companies use their Twitter platforms to promote their CSR activities to reach a broader range of stakeholders, and gain their favour with the objective of increasing market value and increasing profit (Daube, 2021). Their CSR activities are promoted on Twitter to create the impression they are having a positive impact on society, implying their business activities contribute positively to society. The companies also pretend to behave in an ethical way that implies their business contributes to environmental protection, economic and social development, and improvement in the quality of life of the communities in which they operate (Barauskaite & Streimikiene, 2020).

Limitations and Strengths 

This study should be interpreted in the context of its limitations. Firstly, this study only recorded posts, which focus on awards and recognitions, and may not capture all CSR activities undertaken by the tobacco companies. Verifying the posts with current or former employees of the tobacco companies would have strengthened these findings by including confirmation about the design and operation of their CSR programs. However, this study represents a comprehensive snapshot of tobacco company promotion of CSR activities on Twitter from 1 January 2019 and 30 September 2021 . Secondly, the author could not confirm the actual ‘reach or views’ of the posts promoting CSR awards and recognitions. Such a confirmation would have provided further insights on the effectiveness of the different types of posts and topics that gained the highest engagement from stakeholders. The study was unable to identify whether the ‘retweets’, ‘likes’ and ‘views’ on the posts by tobacco companies were from current tobacco industry employees or other stakeholders. However, a strength of this study was the manual method of data collection, into an excel spreadsheet, as opposed to using a computer program (application or algorithm) to collect, group and enter data into the system. The manual collection of data enabled accurate collection of information, grouping, and entry. And it further allowed the author to follow URLs links of CSR activities promoted on the Twitter platforms to verify tweets that did not have a clear central message in the Twitter post.

Recommendations

Tobacco consumption and production causes 8 million preventable deaths globally each year.  International business consultants McKinnsey (Daube, 2015) has rated tobacco as the first among the global social burdens generated  by human beings, ahead of “armed violence, war and terrorism”.

  • Governments and public health practitioners globally should adopt article 5:3 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control to guide tobacco control policies and limit government officials from interacting with tobacco companies to ensure transparency  and prevent conflicts of interest (World Health Organisation, 2005). All politicians and senior public servants, including public health officers should educate the general population about the adverse social, health, and environmental effects caused by the tobacco industry (Who.int, 2021). Education has the potential to create and raise awareness about the harmful and addictive impacts of tobacco products which could help the public to resist partnerships with tobacco companies and prevent tobacco CSR activities in their communities.
  • Government bodies, producers and consumers of tobacco products and non-governmental organizations, and the general public should work together to enact laws and regulations that monitor the tobacco companies CSR activities and evaluate the effectiveness of these CSR programs, particularly in LMICs.
  • A minimum percentage of the annual profit of tobacco companies should be collected by governments to genuinely recover the social, economic, environmental, and health costs inflicted on communities where tobacco companies operate, rather than allowing the tobacco companies to use their CSR to advance their business interest, neglecting their responsibility to the community where they operate their business.
  • Finally, the social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter should be appropriately regulated. Governments must ensure that tobacco companies do not promote their CSR activities without evaluating whether they might have a detrimental effect on public health and mislead the public. In promoting themselves as ‘part of the solution’ tobacco companies are acting unethically as they cause a  broad range of adverse health, economic, social and environmental effects.

Conclusion and future research

Tobacco consumption continues to be the single most preventable cause of morbidity and mortality globally, leading to the most significant burden death and disease. For over 50 years, the tobacco industry has implemented sophisticated public relations approaches such as CSR activities to erode, condemn, confuse, distort, and undermine scientific findings despite the undeniable and compelling scientific evidence of the harms caused by smoking tobacco products. CSR programs have become an integral part of the business practice and strategy by tobacco companies, with the ultimate goal of continuing to sell their products to increase profit and grow their business.

Tobacco companies claim to address the social, economic, and environmental issues by providing employment opportunities that cater for diversity and inclusion, providing financial aids in terms of donations, building and sponsoring education projects, and investing in activities to improve the environment. However, the tobacco industry operations cause a broad range of adverse health, economic, social, and environmental outcomes that are never promoted on their Twitter platforms.

The study has found that the main objective of the tobacco companies is to promote their CSR activities on Twitter platforms to improve their public image, hoping to gain favourable public opinion, retain staff, and gain access to policymakers to influence tobacco control measures to favour their business interests. Governments, non-governmental organisations, and other stakeholders globally need to establish a joint agency that monitors and evaluates the CSR activities of BigTobacco rather than depending on the information they promote on their social media accounts. Future research is needed to understand further how the promotion of CSR awards and recognitions by tobacco companies influence public opinions and downplay the harms caused by smoking.

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