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Have we found the route toward socially responsible tobacco?

Date: 20 Feb 2014

For quite a few years now, I've enjoyed posing the question to audiences - if you woke up tomorrow and found that you were the CEO of a global tobacco company - what would you do?

Answers have ranged from the bullish 'get out there and sell, sell sell!' (usually said tongue in cheek), the more common 'diversity out of tobacco' and 'quit my job' through to the rather extreme 'I'd kill myself!' (we were able to talk her down off the metaphorical ledge).

You always have the option to quit, of course. We make a choice for ourselves what our contribution to the world is going to be.

But really the conundrum the question aims to illustrate is this: is it possible to have a socially responsible tobacco company? Most people's immediate instinct, historically, has been that of course you can't. If your product is specifically responsible for multiple deaths and sickness then that surely negates anything else you could ever do.

But that doesn't stop us having expectations. We don't want tobacco companies to employ child labour in the tobacco plantations, or pollute the environment, or treat their people badly. We don't simply say "you're so far beyond the pale, feel free to be fully and genuinely evil".

So that being the case, you must be able to create a vision for what a socially responsible tobacco company would look like.

For me, the opportunity for the global giants has always been their potential power to engage in disruptive innovation over reduced harm products. My challenge to the newly awakened tobacco CEOs is this: If you could produce a genuinely popular product that was half, or quarter as harmful as the status quo - you could potentially make a huge worldwide beneficial step forward, and force the rest of your industry into a laggardly game of catch-up.

I recall having the opportunity to frame this radical disruptive agenda to the global CEO of one of the tobacco giants about five years ago. The company was investing serious money into reduced harm products. It, along with a number of its peers, was producing CSR / sustainability reports.

He didn't think the existing model was so broken as to warrant such radicalism.

That was then. The question now is whether we are now entering that brave new world after all. We possibly have our product. It is e-cigarettes.

The challenge for a reduced harm product has always been finding one that is genuinely acceptable to the target audience. There were non-combustible tobacco products - known as Snus. This chewing tobacco has been commonly used in Scandinavia, but although it was considerably less harmful than cigarettes it was still harmful, and in the usual counter-intuitive situation that so often applies in this field, it was not legal across most of the rest of Europe.

But the real problem is that smokers enjoy the act of smoking. It's not just about the nicotine. So any genuinely popular product had to replicate that enjoyment if it was to gain market acceptance. But, given the large number of toxins in any combustible tobacco product, it seemed an impossible task.

E-cigarettes have created a product that seems to tick the boxes. And in the last couple of years, it has started to take hold. The market is already worth $3bn worldwide - and most of the users are former cigarette smokers.

We are starting to see that adverts for e-cigarettes will appear - in countries where standard tobacco advertising has been banned for many years.

So is this it? Is this the revolution? Have the tobacco companies after all taken that radical mission to their heart?

Probably not, but they have an opportunity - and society more widely has the chance to push the agenda even if the companies fail to embrace it.

The companies have the opportunity to become aggressive promoters of the move from their existing products to the new ones - to be seen to really care about the health of their consumers so that they actively seek to influence their behaviour, rather than simply provide a product for the emerging market.

If they don't, then society has the opportunity it has really seen itself denied over the last few decades. To force the move through legislation. Governments were never going to ban tobacco smoking because of the significant numbers of people that would be affected - and that would deliver their verdict at the ballot box for any government that had interfered so directly with their enjoyment. But when innovation has raised the standards, legislation can fill in behind and insist that the new standard becomes the norm.

It may be early days for that sort of talk. But the future belongs to the visionaries - it just depends on whether any of them are currently in charge of the big tobacco firms as to just how interesting it gets.


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2 comment for this news story

Comment by: Mallen Baker on 20 Feb 2014

Paul - thanks for your comment.

Read the article again - nowhere do I talk about an ethical epiphany. Indeed, that's rather what I argue for at the end - clearly not yet something that is driving these changes.

On the other hand, you shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that the tobacco companies are incapable of common sense in this area. No business model gets stronger when you actually kill off your customers. Why wouldn't they want a genuinely reduced harm product?

Your argument to the effect that e-cigarettes will also have some negative impacts is rather the dilemma at a time when standard cigarettes, with all the harmful impact, are legal and widespread. At what point do we accept that, if the option of banning the product is off the table (and it doesn't matter what the reason is) then it would be a step forward to require a move to the lesser of the two evils?

So far, anti tobacco campaigners will only accept one outcome - the complete defeat and extinction of the tobacco lobby. That refusal to see any alternative that could provide those companies with new and better ways to profit as businesses is possibly the barrier to progress - since it's hard to envisage any realistic scenarios where that total defeat outcome is going to come to pass.

Comment by: Paul Van Uytrecht on 20 Feb 2014

I'm not at all convinced that e-cigs are the outcome of some sort of ethical epiphany on the part of big tobacco.

Consider the following:
1) It is nicotine which is the cause of addiction to smoking, so we are looking at substituting one way of getting a fix for another rather than overcoming an addiction.
2) Smoking tobacco is harmful in many ways, but primarily to a) the pulmonary and b) cardio-vascular systems. E-cigs may address potential damage to the former but do not address the latter, where nicotine is the cause of health issues. Unless the nicotine content of e-cig capsules is regulated one might even expect an increase in cardio-vascular problems in the general population. E-cigs also introduce new potentially harmful chemicals such as Propylene Glycol.
3) E-cigs are clearly not just aimed at current tobacco smokers but at non-smokers (including young people) as well.

So all in all not in my view a sudden burst of CSR but a new strategy for how to build a captive consumer base through addiction.

Oh, and Governments don’t ban tobacco, not because they are afraid of a backlash at the polls, but because they don’t want to lose the very substantial revenue that flows from excise taxes on tobacco.