New research explains why Corporate Social Responsibility is unlikely to change Big Tobacco

Posted in: Corporate Social Responsibility, Industry tactics

“Smoking is an activity much as dressmaking which has not been declared illegal anywhere in the world.” British American Tobacco executive


It’s now widely accepted that tobacco companies use corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives to influence policymakers and weaken public health policies. Until now what tobacco industry executives think about this and what it tells us about the limits of tobacco companies’ CSR programmes has been a mystery. For the first time researchers at the University of Bath have been able to explore this question using internal British American Tobacco (BAT) documents.

The authors traced the development of British American Tobacco’s (BAT) CSR programme from the late 1990s, when company executives first became aware of their declining political influence, through to the present. Criticism of the tobacco industry had reached a climax following reports of industry executives knowing, but publicly denying, the carcinogenic and addictive nature of tobacco products, chemically altering cigarettes to increase their addictiveness, promoting ‘low-tar’ cigarettes to offer false reassurance without health benefits, and targeting the young in marketing campaigns. Rather than finding a company desperate to demonstrate contrition however, the researchers found a culture riven with a huge sense of injustice at how they were being represented in the media and beyond. Internally, company executives contrived a long list of excuses and justifications which helped them deny responsibility for the accusations levelled against them and question the fairness of increased regulation of the tobacco industry. The extent of denial within the company was summed up by one executive who stated that, “the simple fact is that smoking is an activity much as dressmaking which has not been declared illegal anywhere in the world”.

Having rejected the substance of the criticism directed towards the tobacco industry, BAT executives pointed to failings in the firm’s in-house public relations department to get its message across using traditional public relations techniques. As one internal survey of senior BAT staff reported: “Essentially staff believed that British-American Tobacco was a good international citizen currently, but had failed historically to project itself as such.”

The research shows that BAT executives felt resentful and frustrated at the success of public health professionals in influencing the smoking debate which, they believed, bordered on persecution. Health professionals and advocates were characterised as extreme, skilled in the dark art of using “emotionally charged” arguments, and unscientific. Judges and plaintiff lawyers were accused of attempting to “rig trials”, the World Health Organisation was portrayed as promoting unreasonable regulation, and the House of Commons Select Committee investigating the tobacco industry was dismissed as an ill informed and poorly briefed “kangaroo court” (BAT executive). This analysis encouraged BAT to experiment with using CSR practices to influence policymakers. A key element of this strategy was to create divisions between health professionals and the public in the hope of reducing political pressure for further tobacco regulation.

Efforts to fundamentally change the company seem to have been doomed from the start. The research reveals that BAT managers already felt they were investing heavily in socially responsible activity, but were not doing enough—through branding and publicity—to convey this to a sceptical public. They, therefore, set about using CSR practices to structure how politicians and journalists understood the problems relating to tobacco and its control. The research reveals how these efforts reprise the original excuses used by BAT executives in the late 1990s and reject further regulation as unreasonable and represent lobbying as a civic duty.

Alert to the sheer range of excuses and justifications used by BAT, the researchers matched them to similar techniques used by juvenile delinquents in the US and found BAT’s repertoire to be far more extensive and sophisticated. As Gary Fooks, lead author of the study, explains, “BAT’s ability to explain away their bad behaviour with excuses seems to be more highly developed than that of juvenile delinquents. However, what they’re doing isn’t so apparent, because their excuses are dressed up as positive principles which seek solutions and indicate a willingness to work with government.”

Company documents suggest this approach has been guided by the “potential benefits” on offer, such as “increased marketing freedoms, increased self-regulation, greater intention to buy”. (BAT document). Moreover, it has specifically been prized for its potential to shape health policy in low and middle income countries where greater levels of ignorance over tobacco and health “issues” gave BAT a “much better chance of being able to manage the situation” (BAT executive).

Gary Fooks, lead author of the study, said:

“On one level our analysis indicates how a deviant subculture emerges within large corporations which excuses using CSR practices to weaken public health policy. It explains how corporate executives justify first to themselves and then to the watching world what would otherwise appear unjustifiable. The sense of injustice amongst BAT executives at public health regulation is absolutely fascinating.”

"Our work also says something which, in many ways, is more interesting about the capacity of large corporations to develop political narratives that excuse socially harmful behaviour. Companies, and not just tobacco companies, have invested vast amounts of money in this. BAT has proved itself to be hugely inventive in dreaming up justifications and excuses for defending what they see as a fundamental right to market a product that kills.”

Anna Gilmore, head of the Tobacco Control Research Group, said:

“BAT’s CSR messages are primarily an exercise in repackaging what the company has always done rather than transforming the business. It’s important to remember that the behaviour of tobacco company executives is not unique. Litigation against corporations tells us that company executives in other sectors have been dishonest about the degree of harm their businesses cause and misrepresented scientific knowledge to reduce regulatory and litigation risk. In fact, many of the political strategies used by the tobacco industry are common tools of the public relations industry. If managers typically start from an assumption that a firm is already socially responsible, and that criticism directed at the firm is unjustified or politically motivated, then they are more likely to regard CSR as a public relations tool than as a medium for undertaking meaningful change.”


British American Tobacco: British American Tobacco is the second largest tobacco company (by profitability) after Philip Morris International. Its CSR programme has been steadily accepted and approved by large parts of the investment and CSR communities. Senior employees are now frequently invited to speak at public engagements on CSR and business ethics and the company has won numerous awards for its CSR activities.

Funding: This worked was funded by the US National Cancer Institute (at the National Institutes of Health).

The Tobacco Control Research Group: The University of Bath’s Tobacco Control Research Group is part of the UK Centre of Tobacco Control Studies (UKCTCS) a network of nine universities in the UK working in the field of tobacco control.


Citation: Fooks, G., Gilmore, A., Collin, J., Holden, C., Lee, K. and Smith, K. (2013) The Limits of Corporate Social Responsibility: Techniques of Neutralisation, Stakeholder Management and the Political use of CSR, Journal of Business Ethics, 112(2):  283-299.

Contact: Dr Gary Fooks, Department for Health, University of Bath. E-mail:

Posted in: Corporate Social Responsibility, Industry tactics