HOLMES REPORT: With the proper behavior, even tobacco makers can legitimately claim to be socially responsible

It takes more than a little courage for an executive from the world's largest tobacco company to walk into a conference on corporate social responsibility.

It takes more than a little courage for an executive from the world's largest tobacco company to walk into a conference on corporate social responsibility.

It takes something else entirely - chutzpah doesn't begin to cover it - for that same executive to declare that his company is committed to socially responsible business practices.

That's what David Davies, Philip Morris' VP for corporate affairs, did recently at the Business in the Community annual conference in London. He told delegates, "[If] product cannot be the determinant of whether or not one is doing business responsibly, behavior is."

Many attendees vehemently disagreed. Naj Dehlavi, researcher at the British antismoking group Action on Smoking & Health, says Philip Morris continues to deny that smoking is addictive and to downplay the risks of passive smoking. "Philip Morris might claim to be responsible," says Dehlavi, "but research... has shown that this is little more than a front. In terms of environmental impact ... and its aggressive marketing to children, it is a profoundly unethical company."

I don't have enough space here to settle the question about whether Philip Morris is socially responsible. But the question of whether the term "socially responsible tobacco company" is oxymoronic is an interesting one.

We first must ask whether tobacco is qualitatively different from other products that have the potential to harm. After all, ice cream is not especially healthy, but Ben & Jerry's is often held up as a paragon of social responsibility. Of course, ice cream isn't addictive ... but alcohol is. Can we imagine a socially responsible liquor maker or beer company?

We also must ask whether consumer choice is an important freedom. Should people be allowed to make informed decisions that might damage their health, to engage in risky activity that gives them pleasure, but perhaps involves societal costs? Could a company sell potentially risky mountaineering equipment and still be socially responsible?

And we need to ask whether it is possible to market tobacco products responsibly, in such a way that those too young to make an informed choice are not encouraged to smoke.

I'm inclined to agree with Davies that companies should be judged on their behavior rather than on their products alone, that it's possible to be a socially responsible tobacco company. But a responsible tobacco company would have to be very responsible indeed: eschewing any marketing activity that might influence kids, making sure customers understand the risks of its products, cooperating with public health officials and activists to educate consumers, building the healthcare costs of its products into its pricing, and more.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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