Credit: Foto: Flip Franssen

How Big Tobacco wins 30 sustainability awards each year

By Sergio Nieto Solis, Irene van den Berg, | 8 February, 2022

Big Tobacco is stringing together sustainability and corporate responsibility awards, according to research by The Investigative Desk. This provides the world’s deadliest industry with great publicity, as well as a lobbying opportunity aimed at civil servants and politicians who are no longer allowed to talk to them. 

On 6 February 2020, hundreds of invited guests enjoyed a luxury dinner at long tables in the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ in Amsterdam. It was just a few weeks before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Later on that evening, when the atmosphere had loosened up a bit, the guests enthusiastically swayed and sang along with the musical interludes. Large employers such as parcel delivery company DHL and pharmaceutical AstraZeneca were present at the invitation of the Top Employer Institute (TEI), which awards a seal of approval to good employers worldwide.

One industry sector receives their awards with striking frequency: tobacco giants British American Tobacco (BAT), Philip Morris (PMI), Imperial Brands (IB) and Japan Tobacco International (JTI) receive them annually. In 2021, 155 branches of the four manufacturers received the Top Employer award. BAT was again named a Top Employer in 2022.

The Top Employer Institute is not the only one to shower the tobacco industry with awards. According to their own annual reports, the four tobacco companies in 2020 received more than 30 different awards in the field of Corporate Social Responsibility, such as from Human Rights Campaign, the largest lhbti+ advocacy group in the United States (more on this later).

It is remarkable that this industry has won so many CSR awards. Smoking kills more than seven million people worldwide each year. What makes it even more problematic is that the tobacco manufacturers use the quality marks and incentive awards to generate positive publicity. According to The Investigative Desk, their CSR activities provide them with all kinds of opportunities to circumvent the international marketing and lobbying ban on the tobacco industry.

Circumventing the tobacco marketing ban
To discourage smoking, 168 countries banned all forms of tobacco marketing in the World Health Organization’s 2003 Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. This means that manufacturers, shops and importers are not allowed to advertise tobacco and related products, such as e-cigarettes. In total 99 countries including the Netherlands, decided in recent years that the publicity surrounding Corporate Social Responsibility violates this marketing ban. They prohibited tobacco manufacturers from reporting on their CSR activities in any form.

However, through the awards and labels, the tobacco industry is able to circumvent this ban because other parties – including reputable media – write about the awards. Financial news agency Bloomberg wrote about BAT in 2019: ‘British American Tobacco Only Tobacco Company Featured in Prestigious Dow Jones Sustainability World Index’. And dozens of websites that closely follow the stock market – including Business Insider – even called the British tobacco giant a ‘Climate Leader’ after it received an award from The Financial Times.

Tobacco companies are often helped by the companies and NGOs that issue the awards. ‘We like to promote and celebrate the success of our Top Employers,’ says the TEI website. And – with 100,000 unique visitors and 90,000 subscribers it claims is the largest internet magazine for directors and managers in the Netherlands – wrote a positive announcement about the award ceremony in Amsterdam.

‘We don’t make a distinction in what an organisation does; we look at how they treat their employees. What business a company is in, is not relevant to us,’ said Steven Hormann, Regional Manager Netherlands and Nordics at the Top Employer Institute. TEI booked a turnover of 24 million euros last year, also thanks to the tobacco industry: participants pay ‘a starting price of approximately 15,000 euros’ to be allowed to participate in the Top Employer election, according to Hormann. With 155 branches, this can amount to more than 2.3 million euros per year.

No contact with civil servants
To counteract the political influence of tobacco companies, the 168 countries that signed the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control also decided that they would no longer allow the industry to have a say (lobbying) on tobacco policy. Article 5.3 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) states that ‘In setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, Parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law.’ This means that the government is extremely ‘cautious’ in its contact with the tobacco industry.

According to Ruben van Dorssen, spokesman for the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, the Netherlands interprets this article ‘very rigidly’. ‘The only contact officials are allowed to have with the tobacco industry is on implementation issues, such as what pictures should be on the packets.’ The ban on lobbying does not (yet) apply to members of parliament.

In September and November of 2015, the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport ‘clarified’ the FCTC in letters to the House of Representatives and the Senate, ministries, provinces and municipalities. In these letters, the Ministry laid out ‘that collaboration with the tobacco lobby in public anti-smoking campaigns, other public events or activities undertaken under the banner of Corporate Social Responsibility is contrary to Article 5.3 of the WHO Framework Convention’.

However, tobacco companies can still use the award ceremonies to meet government officials. At the party in the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, for instance, representatives of Japan Tobacco International as well as of the Dutch Central Bank and the Royal Netherlands Air Force were present to celebrate the award.

Abroad, tobacco manufacturers often go even further. Moreover, not all parties to the WHO FCTC interpret Article 5.3 as strictly as the Netherlands. For example, ministers from Bangladesh presented no less than five awards to British American Tobacco in 2018, including for ‘best presented annual report’ and for ‘dream company to work for’. Similar events took place last year in Indonesia, South Korea, Jordan, Turkey and Tanzania, all countries where the number of smokers hardly decreases or even increases each year.

A contradiction in itself
Sandra van der Laan, professor of accountancy at the University of Sidney, warns that such incentive awards distract from what is actually still happening. ‘It is very strange that companies that sell a socially irresponsible product have the opportunity to market themselves in the opposite way. That is a contradiction in itself,’ she explains. Van der Laan published several papers on the CSR efforts of tobacco manufacturers.

This contradiction is clearly visible in the election of Altria Group, parent company of Philip Morris, by the Human Rights Campaign as best place to work for the lhbti+ community. The tobacco manufacturer even achieves the maximum score (100 out of 100), for example because the benefits also apply to same-sex partners, the tobacco manufacturer has an employee group or diversity council for lhbti+ emancipation and Altria Group is said to show commitment to the wider lhbti+ community.

At the same time, Human Rights Campaign warns its own members that the tobacco industry sees the lhbti+ community as an important new target group (a young non-hetero person is currently four times more likely to come into contact with tobacco; the advocacy group does not know why). According to Human Rights Campaign spokesperson Aryn Fields, this does not constitute a conflict: ‘We focus on the experiences of lhbti+ employees at a company and do not pass judgement on what the company sells.’


Being creative with data
Despite the positive image, the awards in reality say little about the socially responsible ambitions of any company. Although British American Tobacco can call itself Climate Leader, the tobacco industry emits just as much CO as the major oil companies.

This is because companies have plenty of opportunities to be creative with their data. To be eligible for an award, they usually have to fill in a questionnaire about their production process. A jury then assesses whether they have made steps towards sustainability. ‘The data they provide focus on the parts of the business they have selected themselves, which need not be representative of the actual situation over a longer period of time,’ explains Professor Van der Laan.

An example of this is that tobacco manufacturers usually report their ‘environmental costs’ per million cigarettes produced, instead of the total. In doing so, they are covering up any possible increases in emissions. After all, if more is produced than in the previous year, the environmental costs rise regardless of the ‘sustainability’ of the production process.

The Human Rights Campaign also lets companies submit their own data for their best workplace award. ‘We ask employers to substantiate their compliance with the provisions of our Corporate Equality Index by submitting evidence for each of the items in the index. If a company does not submit evidence, we work with the best available knowledge of what their policy is,’ said spokesperson Fields.

But does that paint a fair picture? Fields acknowledges that the Corporate Equality Index does indeed ‘not measure every facet of what makes a workplace inclusive’. She therefore sees the award ‘as an important step, but one that is only the starting point’. For Altria Group, on the other hand, the award was the start of a roaring press release with the headline: ‘Altria Group Recognized for Its Commitment to LGBTQ Equality.

The Investigative Desk is a collective of investigative journalists that funds its work from donations, grants, co-funding and honoraria. Donors have no say in the investigations.


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