Everywhere you look, Big Tobacco is proclaiming, “We’ve changed.”
Number two global seller British American Tobacco brags that it has risen to 31st on the “2006 Companies that Count” listing, a British ranking of supposedly socially responsible companies.
Proclaims BAT’s Director of Corporate and Regulatory Affairs Michael Prideaux, “If a business is managing products which pose a risk to health, we believe it is all the more important that it does so responsibly.”
R.J. Reynolds, which is now owned in large part by BAT, is a newcomer to the social responsibility game, but trying to catch up fast. “At the core of our beliefs is the knowledge that we produce a product with significant and inherent risks,” writes company CEO Susan Ivey in RJR’s 2006 “Corporate Social Responsibility Report.” “With that understanding, our core values and guiding principles ? speak to responsible marketing, our approach to tobacco risk reduction and product stewardship.”
No company can outdo Philip Morris on this front. “By the end of the 1990s, our tobacco companies better understood the expectations placed upon them,” the company asserts on its website.
“Corporate responsibility is a core business objective,” contends Andre Calantzopoulos, CEO of Philip Morris International. “From youth smoking prevention to open discussion of tobacco issues to research into reduced risk products, we’re reshaping our company to meet society’s expectations.”
Philip Morris takes the idea of remodeling itself so seriously, it even changed its name. No longer is the parent company Philip Morris — now it is Altria.
But to get a glimpse of what Big Tobacco is actually doing (rather thansaying) around the world, you need to shift attention away from the industry’s self-aggrandizing propaganda.
The industry’s “extreme makeover” was, in equal measure, mocked and exposed at the “Tobacco Industry Academy Awards,” held in conjunction with the triannual World Conference on Tobacco or Health, which finished this past weekend in Washington, D.C.
The awards ceremony was a biting parody (you can see video at http://www.2006conferences.org/26-media.php#), but unfortunately all of the nominations and awards were based on actual industry activities over the last three years.
The award recipients:
Best Ploy to Circumvent a Law: Imperial Tobacco. With Australia mandating large warning labels on cigarette packs, Imperial innovated the idea of “peel off” warnings.
Among the runners up: Philip Morris and BAT. Tobacco advertising is prohibited in Senegal — so Philip Morris has painted entire storefronts in its familiar red-and-white. Among BAT’s nominations was for its conduct in Uzbekistan, where an analysis of internal company documents shows the company overturned legislation that banned advertising and smoking in public places as part of a deal to buy a formerly state-owned company.
Best Effort to Conceal Corporate Ir-Responsibility: BAT, for providing free mini-stalls to sell cigarettes to Sri Lankan tsunami victims.
Among the runners up: BAT again, for providing a highly publicized water tower to a town in Niger. The problem: It is a waterless water tower, with the pumps that were supposed to fill the tower not connected to any electrical source.
Best Initiative to Recruit New Smokers: Philip Morris, for a worldwide competition that brings young adults from around the world (chosen from more than a million applicants) to Marlboro Country — the U.S. West.
Among the runners up: Philip Morris, for sale in Malaysia of “kiddie packs” — packs of 14 cigarettes that are cheaper than a regular pack. A ban on kiddie packs has been delayed at industry urging.
Best Exploitation of a Special Population: Gallaher’s Benson & Hedges. An uncovered training video for “tobacco girls” — who approach men “young and old” on streets and at bars and offer to light a Benson & Hedges cigarette for them — shows the young women being tutored to start the day with a “good wash,” followed by careful grooming and application of makeup. A “good impression will be transferred to the brand and international company you represent,” the video instructs.
Among the runners up: Philip Morris, for hawking “Maori Mix” brand cigarettes in Israel. (Maoris are the indigenous people of Aotearoa/New Zealand.) Confronted at the company’s shareholder meeting this past April, CEO Louis Camilleri apologized to a Maori anti-smoking activist for the misappropriation of the Maori name.
Best Industry Ally: Liu Xiang, an Olympic gold medal-winning hurdler from China, is a leading image ambassador for China’s biggest cigarette maker, Baisha Group.
Among the runners up: The Bandung Municipal Administration in Indonesia, for partnering with Philip Morris on a “school improvement” program, and U.S. President George Bush for refusing to send the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control to the Senate for ratification. More than 130 countries have now ratified the tobacco treaty.
That last is the good news. For one thing has really changed about the tobacco industry. Around the world, its legitimacy is declining and a growing public health movement is imposing meaningful rules to curb industry predation.
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter,