Unsustainable: Big Tobacco’s use of the UN SDGs

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by Tom Gatehouse and Britta Matthes. This piece was first published in Tobacco Tactics.

The United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of 17 goals in key areas for humanity and planet Earth. They are part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all UN member states in 2015, and are expected to define national political agendas until 2030.12 According to the UN, the SDGs and the Agenda for Sustainable Development provide “a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.”1

A wide view of the projections in the General Assembly Hall during the SDG Moment 2022. Credit: UN Photo/Manuel Elias

Along with alcohol, tobacco is the only consumer product mentioned specifically in the Agenda.3 As part of SDG 3 – “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages” – UN member states pledged to “Strengthen the implementation of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control [WHO FCTC] in all countries, as appropriate.”4 This pledge is known as Target 3.a, and it has implications which go far beyond SDG 3.

In recent years, tobacco control advocates, researchers and other public health experts have made the case that the tobacco industry is a threat not only to health and well-being, but to many other aspects of development. They have documented a range of wider social, political, economic and environmental harms associated with the industry.567 As Margaret Chan, then Director-General of the World Health Organization, warned in 2017:

“tobacco use … threatens development in every country on every level and across many sectors — economic growth, health, education, poverty and the environment — with women and children bearing the brunt of the consequences.”8

Reinforcing tobacco control could therefore boost progress not only on global public health, but also on other development issues like poverty, child mortality and food security.6

Though the WHO FCTC requires Parties to develop and implement multisectoral national tobacco control strategies, the responsibility has often fallen on ministries of health and related institutions, with other government departments sometimes uninterested or even resistant when it comes to tobacco control.9 However, thanks to Target 3.a, tobacco control is now part of a broader agenda which requires the engagement of UN agencies and government departments beyond those associated with public health. These include institutions which have historically been susceptible to tobacco industry interference, such as ministries of trade and agriculture.3

In this sense, the SDGs have the potential to facilitate more integrated, extensive and effective tobacco control measures, particularly in low and middle-income countries (LMICs), where over 80% of the world’s 1.3 billion tobacco users live.10

This means there is an irreconcilable conflict between the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda on the one hand, and the interests of the tobacco industry on the other.

The industry response

One might think this would lead the tobacco industry to attack, repudiate, or simply ignore the SDGs. But on the contrary, the major transnational tobacco companies – often called “Big Tobacco”, or the “Big Four” – were very quick to embrace them.

In 2015, the year the SDGs were launched, Philip Morris International (PMI) stated that it welcomed the adoption of the SDGs as “an additional reference for our sustainability journey,” and that it would align its “work to the SDGs and commit to play our part in making them become reality”.11 The following year, the then British American Tobacco (BAT) CEO Nicandro Durante wrote in the company’s 2016 sustainability report, “I see a clear alignment between the SDGs and our own sustainability priorities.”12 In 2017, Japan Tobacco International (JTI) CEO Masamichi Terabatake stressed that JTI’s approach “supports the Sustainable Development Goals set out by the United Nations.”13 Also in 2017, Imperial Brands stated that it was mapping its corporate responsibility programmes “against the UN Sustainable Development Goals.”14

In the years since, the SDGs have been ever more visible in communications produced by the Big Four. All four companies use the UN’s own imagery representing the 17 SDGs in their reporting – as may be seen below:15161718

Pages from Big Four corporate publications. Clockwise from top left: BAT’s ESG Report 2020; PMI’s Sustainability Development Goals index 2021; JT Group’s 2018 Sustainability Report; Imperial Brands’ Sustainability Performance Summary 2021

In 2020 and 2021, PMI even published a dedicated “Sustainable Development Goals index”, outlining how it believes its business activities contribute to the SDGs (see top right image above).1619

But Big Tobacco’s enthusiasm for the SDGs is just the latest manifestation of a decades-old tactic. Ever since the risks of tobacco use were established, the industry has attempted to claim a role as a legitimate partner in discussions of public health – all the while continuing to sell a product that kills up to half of its long-term users.10 Likewise, with growing awareness of the threat tobacco poses to global development, the industry now presents itself as a champion of the cause – though its operations continue to hold back progress on many levels.

Although tobacco use and its production negatively impact all 17 SDGs, what follows here is an analysis of industry discourse on some of the SDGs to which the Big Four devote most attention.20

SDG 3: “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”

For decades, the Big Four have made many billions of dollars selling a product which is the world’s biggest cause of preventable disease and premature death.21 Yet all stress their commitment to SDG 3, largely through linking it to harm reduction, with claims that they are improving the health and well-being of people who smoke by offering newer and “less harmful” or “less risky” products, such as e-cigarettes, heated tobacco products and nicotine pouches. As BAT states in its 2021 Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) report, “Our portfolio reflects our commitment to reducing the health impact of our business by creating new products, backed by science, that provide adult smokers with less risky alternatives.”22

However, while the global market for newer nicotine and tobacco products is growing rapidly, as of 2021, cigarettes still accounted for over 83% of the total market value of all nicotine and tobacco products worldwide –  a total of $779 billion.23 Contrary to tobacco companies’ harm reduction narratives, cigarettes are the foundation of the industry, and will remain so for the foreseeable future – as they openly admit:

  • “I still see traditional tobacco as the mainstay of our business for a long time to come.” – Nicandro Durante, the then BAT CEO in 2016.24
  • “Our combustible tobacco portfolio remains the foundation of our business” – André Calantzopoulos, the then PMI CEO in 2019.25
  • “While the RRP [reduced risk product] category is our top investment priority in terms of future sustainability of the JT Group, we project nonetheless that combustibles will remain the tobacco industry’s biggest category through the coming decade.” – from the JTI Integrated Report 2021.26
  • “We are focused on five priority combustible markets representing around 70% of our adjusted operating profit.” Also, “The NGP [next generation products] category remains relatively nascent in the majority of markets.” – from the Imperial Brands Annual Report 2021.27

Though improved tobacco control regulations have seen smoking rates fall across many upper-middle and higher-income countries in recent decades, the Big Four continue to take advantage of weaker laws and enforcement in many LMICs – sometimes using controversial tactics to carry on selling cigarettes.

These include locating tobacco retailers close to school grounds, and selling flavoured tobacco products and individual cigarettes (single sticks).2829 Companies use a range of tactics to reduce tax contributions and maintain profits from LMICs, including specific pricing strategies, attempts to block proposed tax increases on tobacco products, and by shifting taxable profits to subsidiaries in other countries.29 They also threaten litigation against countries which attempt to introduce stronger tobacco control measures.30

A study by researchers from the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath concluded that “Transnational tobacco companies’ harm reduction discourse should be seen as opportunistic tactical adaptation to policy change rather than a genuine commitment to harm reduction,” highlighting also how it is being used to facilitate access to scientists, public health experts and policy makers.31 Indeed, in 2019 the WHO FCTC Secretariat warned that newer products are “creating another layer of interference by the tobacco industry and related industries, which is still … the most serious barrier to progress in implementing the WHO FCTC.”32

  • Read more about the tobacco industry’s adoption of harm reduction as a business strategy and a route to policy influence

SDG 8: “Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”

It is perhaps less surprising that the tobacco industry chooses to focus on SDG 8, having long portrayed itself as a source of economic growth and creator of employment, particularly in LMICs. Industry discourse around Goal 8 also complements its efforts to rebut accusations of complicity in labour exploitation, particularly child labour.533

PMI, for example, links SDG 8 to its “Agricultural Labor Practices program” (ALP), the stated aim of which is to “to eliminate child labor and to achieve safe and fair working conditions and a decent livelihood for all farmers contracted to supply tobacco.”1634 JTI also links SDG 8 to a programme of the same name, which was supported from 2015 to 2018 by the International Labour Organization (ILO) – a UN agency – “in the areas of training and impact assessment.”1335 Though the ILO ended its relationship with JTI in 2018, JTI continues to stress that the ALP is “based on the International Labour Organization’s conventions and recommendations.”26

Both BAT and Imperial Brands link the SDGs to the Sustainable Tobacco Programme (STP).2227 This is an industry-founded initiative, which “assesses and monitors suppliers’ performance in meeting industry-wide standards.”12 Leaf operations and third-party suppliers are expected to comply with a “wide range of farmer income and livelihoods criteria”.22 JTI is also a member of the STP; PMI was a member from 2016 to 2021.2636

However, such initiatives constitute more of a public relations strategy than a serious attempt to tackle the root causes of labour exploitation, particularly child labour.37 They help to win support for the industry’s operations – both within tobacco-growing communities and in the political sphere – and weaken opposition, particularly in LMICs, where there may be less monitoring by civil society and where financial interventions by these companies may have greater impact.37

The same could be said for the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation, or ECLT (see also the section on SDG 17). Though it describes itself as independent, since its inception in 2000 ECLT has been funded and governed by the tobacco industry. Its board is formed almost entirely of executives from tobacco companies and tobacco leaf merchants.38 In its 2021 annual report, ECLT explicitly cites Article 8.7 of SDG 8, which sets the target of eliminating all child labour by 2025.38

Not only does tobacco industry corporate social responsibility (CSR) contravene the implementation guidelines for Article 5.3 of the WHO FCTC, which regard it as a form of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, but there is also good reason to be sceptical with regard to its impacts – especially when it comes to child labour. Despite more than 20 years of work by ECLT, alongside other industry CSR initiatives supposedly designed to tackle the problem, children continue to work within tobacco industry supply chains. As of 2018, children were working on farms in virtually all the main tobacco producing countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia, Malawi and the United States.3 It is unlikely that this has changed significantly in the interim.

Child labour and other forms of labour exploitation persist in the tobacco industry’s supply chains because they are the inevitable consequences of its business model. Tobacco remains an extraordinarily profitable commodity, despite all the regulations and taxes to which the industry is subject. Profit margins in the tobacco industry have been as much as triple the average reported by major multinational companies in other sectors.39 This is due, in part, to the extremely low prices which companies pay for tobacco leaf. Indeed, research has shown that tobacco farming results in a net loss for most smallholder farmers.40

In 2020, for example, a group of Malawian tobacco farmers filed a lawsuit in the UK against BAT and Imperial Brands. They argued that the two companies had been unjustly enriched because tobacco was being produced in conditions that amounted to child and forced labour.41 The plaintiffs alleged that they and their children – some as young as three – worked from 6 a.m. to midnight seven days a week in dangerous conditions; that they had been forced to build their own homes; were given only a small daily portion of maize to live on; and had to borrow money to feed their families throughout the season. In some cases, farmers had sold their daughters to pay off their debts.4243 While both companies deny the allegations, they failed in an attempt to have the case dismissed in 2021.42

The tobacco industry also came under renewed scrutiny for its labour practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. In April 2020, two workers died and dozens of others tested positive following an outbreak at a factory belonging to Sampoerna, the Indonesian subsidiary of PMI. The two workers who died first sought medical assistance from the factory clinic on 2 April, were admitted to hospital a week later, and died on 18 April. Yet the factory remained open until 27 April – two weeks after the workers had tested positive.44 Meanwhile, in Nigeria, it was reported in local media that BAT employees complained that the company had failed to implement social distancing measures as ordered by government.4546

SDG 13: “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”

In November 2022, at the opening of the COP27 UN climate summit in Egypt, UN Secretary General António Guterres told delegates “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator.”47 In this context of climate emergency, companies across virtually all business sectors have been keen to stress how they are cutting their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The tobacco industry is no exception, and again, it has frequently referred to the SDGs, particularly SDG 13.

All the Big Four have set targets on carbon neutrality across their operations. PMI – the most ambitious – aims to be carbon neutral in its Scope 1 emissions (from sources it controls directly) and Scope 2 emissions (from energy use) by 2025, and across its entire value chain by 2040.3648 However, while such pledges may sound impressive, Scope 1 and 2 account for a small proportion of the total emissions the tobacco industry generates. Most emissions are Scope 3, which come from sources up and down value chains for which companies are indirectly responsible. As BAT acknowledges in its reporting, Scope 3 emissions account for 90% of its total carbon footprint.49

Most of these emissions derive from tobacco farming.50 This is largely because of curing – the drying of tobacco leaf – which often takes place in barns heated by the burning of wood or coal.51 Tobacco farming is also a direct cause of deforestation, with forests cleared to make way for tobacco plantations and wood burned as fuel to cure tobacco leaf.6 Approximately 600 million trees are cut down every year by the tobacco industry, disproportionately affecting those countries where most of the world’s tobacco is grown, such as China, India and Malawi.652

While precise data on the tobacco industry’s GHG emissions are difficult to obtain, tobacco’s overall contribution to climate change is likely to be considerable. A 2018 study estimated that production of the six trillion cigarettes manufactured worldwide in 2014 generated almost 84 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent – even after the absorption of CO2  by tobacco plants had been taken into account.5153 This is higher than total GHG emissions for that year for countries such as Ireland, Portugal and New Zealand.54

The growing market for newer nicotine and tobacco products may also have serious environmental consequences. Both e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products are built from plastics and metals and contain lithium-ion batteries. This leads to concerns around the sourcing of these raw materials (e.g., through mining, another industry with immense environmental impact) and the disposal of electronic waste, as well as the intensive manufacturing processes which these products require.53 For example, PMI admits that the energy required to produce the consumables for its “smoke-free” products (including its heated tobacco products, e-cigarettes and nicotine pouches) is around four times greater than for cigarettes.5556 And of course, some of these products still require tobacco.

Yet the Big Four all report glowing assessments of their activity from accreditation schemes such as the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), the Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi), and the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI).22552757 In 2020, for example, both PMI and JTI received perfect scores from the DJSI for “Environmental reporting” and “Climate strategy”, while BAT and Imperial Brands were named as “Climate Leaders” by the Financial Times in 2021 and 2022.57555859

But many doubts persist, given that there is no globally agreed protocol for assessing companies’ performance on ESG issues. Worldwide, there are over 600 different ESG approaches with little harmonisation between them, which means companies tend to cherry-pick the schemes most likely to provide them with a positive assessment.60 If such an appraisal is not forthcoming, they may withdraw altogether: for example, when BAT, JTI and Imperial Brands received poor ratings from CDP Forests in 2017, all three simply opted out.60

In a textbook example of greenwashing, tobacco companies’ positive social and environmental assessments are given great emphasis and visibility in the industry’s corporate presentations, reports, and on their websites. The aim is to rehabilitate the industry in the eyes of investors, policy makers, and the public, ensuring that it is seen as a legitimate partner in the pursuit of sustainable development and climate action, rather than what it really is – a significant contributor to the global climate emergency and the wider ecological crisis.605053

SDG 17: “Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development”

SDG 17, also known as “Partnerships for the goals”, stresses that achievement of the SDGs and the success of the wider Agenda for Sustainable Development depend upon “global partnerships and cooperation”.61

In recent years, the tobacco industry has increasingly sought to establish partnerships with international organisations, government departments, universities, NGOs, charities, civil society organisations and others. From an industry perspective, such partnerships provide a number of potential benefits. They may facilitate access to policy makers; provide opportunities to influence science; and allow companies to launder their image and obtain greater social and political legitimacy, both through association with respected actors and via CSR collaborations, particularly in LMICs.20 As a result, the industry has enthusiastically embraced SDG 17, seeing it as a means with which to legitimise further partnerships of this type.5

As the then BAT CEO Nicandro Durante wrote in the company’s 2016 Sustainability Report:

“Goal 17, with its focus on partnerships, is … particularly relevant. Working collaboratively as part of multi-stakeholder partnerships has always been central to our approach to sustainability. Only by working together can some of the biggest challenges we face, such as child labour in agriculture or the global illegal tobacco trade, be addressed effectively.”12

A good example of this tactic comes from Nigeria, where BAT engaged with a UN initiative, the Sustainable Development Goals Fund. Set up in 2014, this is a multi-donor and multi-agency mechanism which supports work on achieving the SDGs. In turn, it established a Private Sector Advisory Group (PSAG), comprised of executives from major international companies.62 In 2017, Nigeria became the first UN member state to launch its own, country-level PSAG, one of the members of which was the British American Tobacco Nigeria Foundation. As a result, BAT was able to join the Nigerian delegation at the UN General Assembly in 2018, and in its ESG Report the following year, BAT linked its membership of the Nigerian PSAG and its presence on the delegation specifically to the SDGs, particularly SDG 17.6364

The tobacco industry has also successfully forged public-private partnerships through the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation (ECLT; see also the section on SDG 8). BAT is a co-founder of ECLT and explicitly cites it as an example of the kind of multi-stakeholder partnerships promoted by SDG 17.65 Between 2002 and 2018, ECLT had a public-private partnership agreement with the International Labour Organization (ILO), involving contributions to the ILO totalling more than $5.3 million.66 Sustained pressure from the WHO and other groups led the ILO to terminate its agreement with ECLT in 2018 and to commit to stop accepting tobacco industry funding.67 However, as of 2022, the ILO remains listed as a “non-executive advisor” to the ECLT board – a role that BAT highlights in its reporting.6864

ECLT also remains a participant in the UN Global Compact (UNGC), a non-binding agreement designed to encourage companies to adopt sustainability principles and support the SDGs. In 2021, an open letter signed by STOP, the global tobacco industry watchdog, as well as 176 other organisations and individuals, urged the UN to remove ECLT as a UNGC participant.69 As of May 2023, the UNGC had yet to do so, and ECLT remained listed.70

Preventing these types of partnerships is particularly important for the 2030 Agenda, given that Article 5.3 of the WHO FCTC specifically requires Parties to protect their tobacco control and public health policies “from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry.”9 This means that interaction with the tobacco industry should be limited to that which is strictly necessary for effective regulation of the industry and its products.71 Anything beyond this contravenes the implementation guidelines for Article 5.3 – and therefore undermines the WHO FCTC, the SDGs and the wider Agenda.

“We seek to be part of the debate that shapes the regulatory environment in which we operate”, states BAT in its 2021 ESG reporting.22 But thanks in large part to the implementation of Article 5.3 and other tobacco control measures, the industry has increasingly been excluded from this debate. While it sees SDG 17 as a way of reclaiming ‘a seat at the table’, the Goal should in fact be used to strengthen tobacco control efforts. As the WHO’s guidelines on implementing Article 5.3 state, “International cooperation is essential for making progress in preventing interference by the tobacco industry with the formulation of public health policies on tobacco control.”71

Through sharing knowledge, expertise and experience of tobacco industry interference, the Parties to the WHO FCTC – along with tobacco control advocates and researchers, public health experts, activists and others – can coordinate their strategies, in order to counter industry influence more effectively. The goal must be to ensure that the industry is excluded from any debates on policy, that Target 3.a. is upheld – and ultimately, that the SDGs have the best possible chance of success.


Tom Gatehouse and Britta K. Matthes.


Thanks to Rosemary Hiscock for providing support on tobacco industry supply chains.

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