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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