An Adult Choice? Corporate Responsibility and the Global Face of Tobacco

An Adult Choice? Corporate Responsibility and the Global Face of Tobacco


Tobacco has been a global industry for more than a century. But in the era of corporate social responsibility, how do tobacco companies justify their push to sell even more cigarettes around the world? Trade agreements like the currently proposed Trans Pacific Partnership make it easier for tobacco corporations to flood markets in low- and middle-income countries, where 80% of the world's billion tobacco users live. Anthropologist Peter Benson, author of Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industryweighs in.



Claire Navarro (host): Thanks for tuning in to Hold That Thought. I’m Claire Navarro. In today’s podcast we’re going to be talking about tobacco. We all know that cigarettes cause dangerous diseases. We also know that they are addictive – maybe you or a loved one has quit smoking or are trying to quit. But what many of us don’t consider when we think about cigarettes is how many hundreds of millions of people around the world still use tobacco every day. Cigarettes are a truly global commodity – one that anthropologist Peter Benson has been studying for years. For his book Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry Benson spent a more than a year picking and pruning tobacco alongside workers and riding around in pick-up trucks with farm operators.

Peter Benson (guest): As an anthropologist, I conducted fieldwork in North Carolina and got to know tobacco farmers and farm workers in really close and intimate and revealing ways, and I gained a lot of respect for them.

CN: In this process, he was able to sort of separate the business of tobacco from what most of us think about – the act of smoking. And as an anthropologist, he also wanted to zoom even further out and think about a more global perspective. The story of tobacco’s globalization started a long time ago. Back in the1880s when tobacco magnate James B. Duke pioneered the cigarette, he referred to what he called the “global market” for this new product.

PB: Even as early as the post-civil war period, Duke envisioned the idea that China or Asia or other continents would become great consumers of tobacco. From the beginning of the invention of the cigarette in the 1880s and the 1890s, tobacco was a globalizing market.

CN: The impulse to spread this North American plant around the world didn’t go away over the centuries. Part of the rationale for fighting the Cold War was to open up new markets to commodities – like cigarettes. In the 1980s and 90s, American trade representatives negotiating free trade agreements worked on behalf of the tobacco industry. And this of course, was after the dangers of smoking had already come to light.

PB: One of the great paradoxes of tobacco is that while the U.S. government and the public health community since the 1950s and the 1960s have become increasingly aware of the harms of tobacco, the trade wing of the American government—the economic engine, the state department—was busy fighting for the expansion and opening of new markets in developing countries where they wanted people to purchase American-made cigarettes, like Marlboros.

CN: If this sounds like ancient history, look to recent news headlines.

PB: Today, one of the hot-button issues is President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The American Chamber of Commerce has been advocating on behalf of tobacco companies for the TPP, because what the TPP will allow—and what the historical pattern will predict—the influx of Marlboro cigarettes into countries in Southeast Asia with lower taxes and tariffs on American-made cigarettes. Tobacco companies like Philip Morris stand to gain a lot from the TPP, and the further globalization of tobacco products hinges on the continued American support for free-trade agreements, like the TPP.

CN: At some level, this push to open up new markets for tobacco through trade agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership makes sense. After all, tobacco is a business that wants to make a profit, and we live in a global economy. But it also seems sort of crazy. Everybody knows that smoking is really dangerous. And at a time when corporations – including tobacco corporations – tout how socially responsible and transparent they are, pushing a dangerous product in developing countries seems hypocritical at best. What’s going on here?

PB: The analogy is a little bit like how Hollywood celebrities will do a lot of endorsements overseas that they wont do in the States where they risk looking cheesy. For example, Tom Cruise will do an endorsement for beer or something in Japan, or Gwyneth Paltrow will do an endorsement for a cosmetic line in Korea. However, they do not do endorsements in the United States, because it would ruin their brand; they would seem crass or cheesy. Philip Morris and other tobacco companies talk a lot about moral responsibility in the United States, but when it comes to Marlboros flooding the market in Cambodia, they are not feeling the responsibility to address young people smoking. That’s where their profits lie.

CN: Benson has recently been researching corporate social responsibility in the tobacco industry. I asked him whether he agreed with the World Health Organization’s stance that the tobacco industry and corporate responsibility was an “inherent contradiction.” He said that though there certainly are plenty of examples of tobacco companies being blatantly dishonest or hypocritical, he’s interested in looking at corporate responsibility in a more nuanced way.

PB: What is interesting to me more than the double-speak is doing an analysis of the particular content of the corporate social responsibility messaging. What values do they promote? Philip Morris promotes parenting as a value. That is something really prominent in their corporate social responsibility campaign, and it’s something I’ve been publishing on. Well, why does Philip Morris talk about parenting? They could talk about anything. They are responsible, right? They could talk about cigarettes or not advertising in Hollywood movie (product placement). There are lots of areas of market ethics they could talk about, but they choose parenting. They produce literature about how parents can talk to their kids about not smoking, and I’ve been intrigued by this.

CN: Part of what’s so intriguing is that when you think about it, there’s another message underlying this focus on good parenting:

PB: Parents are really responsible for smoking, not companies and not the government. If parents are responsible, the companies get let off the hook and the government doesn’t need to be involved. If it is just about you talking to your kid about smoking or not smoking and your kid grows up to smoke, then it is your fault.

CN: In addition to shifting blame, parents talking to kids about smoking is not exactly a proven way to, you know, actually stop kids from smoking.

PB: Talking to your kids about smoking is probably ineffective. Your kids will most likely smoke if that is the way to prevent them from smoking.

CN: And on top of all that, by playing into messages about personal responsibility that we’re already used to hearing – whether about alcohol or guns or anything else that’s dangerous – in some ways the tobacco companies are continuing to dominate how people think about cigarettes.

PB: When the tobacco industry says it’s all up to adults, they are not really contradicting something in society; we believe that about everything. It doesn’t contradict the core consumerist impulses whether it is in the United States or a country like Nigeria; they can promote that message wherever they go.

CN: And this means that the types of measures that actually do prevent people from smoking – like higher prices or public smoking bans – get left out of the conversation, wherever that conversation is happening in the world. And Benson believes this type of thinking means people around the world will continue to be at risk.

PB: I have to honest about what I think about tobacco: from a public health standpoint, it is really harmful. It’s not necessarily like alcohol where there is recreational use. There is not a recreational context for tobacco use; people become addicted and then they want to stop.

CN: So what should be done? Even with a product as dangerous as cigarettes, the answer isn’t exactly clear. But it is clear that current conversations and regulations aren’t enough. 
PB: I find it dissatisfying the ways that we have a mediocre response to tobacco that has allowed tobacco companies to stay in the game—even be strengthened—because of the idea of adult choice. But let me emphasize that having done my fieldwork in North Carolina and having a great sympathy and respect for the growers there, I do not think that you can get rid of tobacco without compensating people. They have businesses and livelihoods at stake, and we do have a government, after all. You could pay people to phase it out, provide resources for them to transition to other crops or businesses, or provide economic development programs to rural regions—all of these are possibilities, but in a context where the tobacco industries so powerfully promote the idea of an adult choice, those are not possibilities. That is what is so unfortunate to me.

CN: I asked Benson what he thought about all this, personally. Even as a researcher, when spending so much time thinking about such an enormous public health risk. I’d imagine it would be hard not to have some sort of emotional reaction. The words he came up with were sad and astonished. When considering that tobacco kills around 6 million people each year, and 80% the world’s billion smokers live in low- and middle-income countries, it’s hard to not agree with him.

PB: There are a lot of social problems and health problems—drugs and heroin—but these are a very different kind of problems than tobacco. We are talking about a massive industry that for a century has been litigated against and found to be criminally negligent and corrupt, but it is still around and profitable at being globalized in a way that is maybe more harmful than ever. That is astonishing to me. Other chemicals like lead or asbestos are not around any more; asbestos isn’t an informed adult choice. Getting lead in your paint or you gasoline isn’t an adult choice, so I wonder why tobacco remains an adult choice.

CN: Many thanks to Pete Benson for joining Hold That Thought. For many more ideas to explore, please visit You can also find us on Facebook Twitter, iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, and PRX.


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