Companies may use corporate social responsibility programmes not just to enhance their public image, but to also gain access to politicians, influence agendas, and shape public health policy to best suit their own interests. In a study article led by Gary Fooks from the University of Bath’s Tobacco Control Research Group in the UK and published in this week’s PLoS Medicine, these programmes are revealed as “an innovative form of corporate political activity”.

The continual efforts of British American Tobacco (BAT, the world’s second largest publicly traded tobacco company, which has won numerous awards for its social and environmental programmes) to re-establish access with the UK Department of Health, following the Government’s decision to restrict contact with major tobacco companies, were documented by the researchers.

Searching BAT records that were made publicly available as a result of litigation in the U.S. (for the period, 1998-2000) were involved in a detailed case investigation. The researchers demonstrate how the business used its corporate social responsibility programme in its dialogue with policymakers to influence the priorities of public and elected officials in the UK, encourage them to take notice of proposals that best suited the company (for example, to make regulation voluntary), and to go over the Government’s worries about whether the industry could be trusted to work in partnership.

In order to reveal how BAT was able to connect its preferred policies to political and societal values, such as harm reduction, child health, and cooperation between business and government, the authors documented examples of correspondence from Martin Broughton (BAT’s chair between 1998 and 2004) and notes from meeting with politicians, including former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.

They argue that their discoveries underline the need for broad implementation of Article 5.3 of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (an international treaty that aims to reduce the harm linked with tobacco use) which aims to protect public-health policies on tobacco control from tobacco industry influence. Measures to ensure transparency in all interactions between all parts of the government and the tobacco industry, and to raise awareness across government of what tobacco businesses hope to achieve through corporate social responsibility will be required for successful implementation.

The researchers explain:

“our case study underlines the value of understanding BAT’s [corporate social responsibility programme] as an innovative form of corporate political activity. This approach to conceptualizing [corporate social responsibility] has potentially important implications for public health given the widely documented impact of tobacco companies’ political activity in delaying and blocking health related policies.

More generally, it is likely to be relevant to understanding the impact of [corporate social responsibility] in other industrial sectors, such as alcohol and food, where corporate social responsibility also seems to have been used to shape government policy.

We suggest that our findings – and the absence of strong evidence suggesting that co-regulation is capable of aligning the business models of big food and drinks companies with the demands of public health – suggest that the role of corporate social responsibility in the [UK Government’s Public Health Responsibility] Deal needs to be subjected to closer scrutiny.”

Written by Grace Rattue