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New Paper Finds Indian Tobacco Companies Provided Nearly US$37 Million in Corporate Social Responsibility During First Months of COVID-19

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India’s Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act 2003 (COTPA) bars tobacco company corporate social responsibility (CSR) as does Article 13 of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which notes that such activities are a form of advertising. Despite such significant prohibitions, Indian tobacco companies provided nearly US$37 million to government funds as part of COVID-19 relief activities, according to a new paper by Amit Yadav, Pranay Lal, Renu Sharma, Ashish Pandey, and Rana Jagdeep Singh from The Union.

Published 15th April in the peer-reviewed journal Tobacco Control, the study—“Tobacco industry corporate social responsibility activities amid COVID-19 pandemic in India”—involved an online search of regional and national newspapers. By plugging tobacco company names into search engines, the authors found 53 news reports of CSR activities between March 2020 and June 2020. Cash and in-kind contributions, they discovered, were provided to various government funds shortly after India imposed a nation-wide lockdown to curb the disease, which has now claimed over 171,000 lives. Industry donations were publicized in major newspapers and lauded in high-profile Twitter accounts, including one held by the Prime Minister.

The result, according to lead study author Dr. Amit Yadav, was precisely the one tobacco companies were after. “The industry’s corporate social responsibility efforts are neither new nor legitimate,” he explained. “But there is a pattern. When disaster strikes—droughts, floods, cyclones, earthquakes, and tsunamis—the industry swoops in and capitalizes on human misery, painting itself as heroic and charitable. This has to stop.”

Each year, tobacco use kills more than 1.3 million Indians, and nearly 2.7 million Indians use some form of tobacco product. Despite the popularity of its products, the industry loses 1 in 3 tobacco users to premature death. As a result, it needs to recruit new users to maintain its profit.

Though it is forbidden by COTPA 2003 and Articles 5.3 and 13 of the FCTC, tobacco industry corporate social responsibility is permissible under The Companies Act 2013, which mandates that large corporates spend 2% of their annual profit for precisely these activities.

This loophole, according to the study authors, paves the way for the industry to promote itself and its products. But it may be closing. According to Dr Upendra Bhojani, Director, Institute of Public Health, proposed comprehensive changes to COTPA are currently being discussed.

“This study is extremely timely and most relevant,” he explained. “Proposed amendments to COTPA can and should expressly ban any tobacco company CSR and corporate promotion. This will also bring the Indian tobacco control law in compliance with Article 13 of the FCTC.”

In addition to highlighting the scale of industry CSR efforts during the early days of COVID-19, the study, according to Dr Prakash Gupta, Director Healis Sekhsaria Institute for Public Health, Navi Mumbai, makes it clear that tobacco industry corporate social responsibility is not charitable, but, rather, a clear manipulation to “access policy makers and legislatures.”

Full citation of the paper: Yadav A, Lal P, Sharma R, et al. Tob Control. Epub ahead of print: [15April 2021] doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2020-056419