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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tobacco industry: A question of corporate social irresponsibility

by-Akin Owoeye
I have in recent times observed through newspaper articles the generous activities of tobacco companies, particularly the British American Tobacco (BAT) which claims to be social responsible. Tobacco companies make so much noise about what they do, despite the laid-down rules and procedures on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes. But the truth is, it is normal for any responsible company to engage in CSR.
CSR is an effort to bring corporate values more in line with society's expectations and values. That is, a way for companies to develop a code of conduct and provide accountability to society. It is however my view that legally enforceable mechanisms based on internationally agreed standards in the areas of human, social and environmental rights are necessary to reverse the unsustainable impacts of tobacco companies' activities.
The tobacco companies, through their CSR efforts, attempt to gain credibility and public trust, but their CSR efforts have not demonstrated any positive impact on public health. They give little to host communities and take so much out of them. The industry claims to help tobacco farmers by giving loans, while in actual fact it forces them to grow tobacco for buyers who will provide all inputs. When the cost is deducted from the farmers' earnings, the leftover can hardly be used for anything. Moreover, they sign contracts which they know nothing about, a situation which has kept them mired in abject poverty.
Health threats to tobacco farmers include bladder cancer, allergies or skin disorder (eczema), pesticide exposure, etc. They engage children and women in tobacco farming and expose them to Green tobacco sickness, which involves nicotine poisoning through the skin during cultivation and harvesting. It also causes vomiting or nausea and dizziness or headaches during or after exposure.
While tobacco companies' public advertising has been restricted, much of their CSR is actually indirect advertising. They carry out all sorts of promotions and sponsorships, even when research has shown that industry-sponsored programmes do not work. Tobacco industry youth programmes, for instance, do more harm than good for tobacco control, and should not be allowed to run or be directly funded by tobacco companies. In the same vein, research has also shown that industry-sponsored TV programmes increase exposure to tobacco products.
Several tobacco companies state that they have developed less harmful tobacco products as part of their CSR efforts. However, there is no scientific evidence to prove that these products are less hazardous. Profit continues to be a motivator of all they do.
The truth is that tobacco industry objectives and goals will always remain incompatible with what public health wants. Contrary to standard ways of doing CSR according to Indication Protocols (IP), a product responsibility indicator, organisations are expected to exercise due care in the design of their products and services. This is to ensure they do not pose unintended hazards to health and safety.
In addition, protection of health and safety is a recognised goal of many national and international regulations. So failure to comply with legal requirements indicates either inadequate internal management systems and procedures, or lack of implementation.
BAT's CSR claims to subscribe to the international reporting system, but cannot report on customer health and safety indicators, given that its products kill one-half of its users. Tobacco industry and health promotion goals are also mutually exclusive; hence partnership is impossible.
All told, economic actors (the government, transnational companies) have a huge role to play in protecting, promoting and respecting human, social and environmental rights. Tobacco companies often exercise enormous influence over decision-making in the country, and are rarely held accountable for damaging the environment, harming local communities and forcing workers and tobacco farmers to accept unfair conditions and/or salaries. It is time for companies to be responsible and accountable!