Tobacco related CSR activities in ASEAN region

Activities in ASEAN[1]

As the ASEAN region becomes more aware of the deadly effects of tobacco and governments step up regulation of the industry, tobacco companies are resorting to more below-the-line tactics to promote their corporate name and products to reach consumers. Tobacco Industry-related Corporate Social Responsibility (TI-CSR) activities have become one of the key strategies exploited by the tobacco industry (TI) to enhance its image and maintain legitimacy in both public and corporate spheres. CSR contributions are a loophole for the industry to exploit, particularly when all other forms of tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship are prohibited. The money tobacco companies spend on CSR activities are part of their marketing expenses and should not be considered as donations to charity.

TI-CSR vs SDGs[2]

Since governments have committed to implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through long-term plans based on partnerships, the TI has re-aligned its CSR programmes along the lines of SDGs. TI’s programmes and documents are now peppered with the term “sustainability”. These past two years, the TI has been talking up “sustainable agriculture”, “sustainable communities” and “sustainable environment”. British American Tobacco (BAT) refers to its CSR programme as Corporate Social Investment (CSI) and talks about how the activities are about “investing in local communities”. BAT claims its activities are aligned directly to SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth, SDG 15: Life on the Land, and SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities. In reality tobacco use undermines public health and sustainable development. Tobacco products and the tobacco business conflict with almost all the SDGs. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) World No Tobacco Day theme for 2017 was “Tobacco – a threat to development,” which is a reflection of the broad, negative impact tobacco has on society. SDG 3 aims to implement the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and reduce tobacco use.

TI-CSR: TI tactic to whitewash tobacco harms and access high level officials and policy makers[3]

Tobacco industry related corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities are a form of sponsorship and are used by the tobacco industry to whitewash tobacco harms and access high level officials and policy makers. Only Brunei, Lao PDR, Myanmar, and Thailand have banned CSR by the tobacco industry.

According to FCTC Article 13, parties should ban contributions from tobacco companies to any other entity for “socially responsible causes”, as this is a form of sponsorship. Publicity given to “socially responsible” business practices of the tobacco industry should be banned, as it constitutes advertising and promotion.

Tobacco companies are increasingly resorting to conducting CSR activities to buy goodwill and credibility to earn political mileage. The top four transnational tobacco companies, Philip Morris International (PMI), British American Tobacco (BAT), Japan Tobacco International (JTI) and Imperial Brands (Tobacco) Group conduct CSR activities in the ASEAN region. Publicity given to these activities in the media constitutes advertising and promotion. Thailand, Lao PDR and Myanmar have total banned tobacco-related CSR activities. Vietnam limits the type of CSR activities the industry can conduct to poverty eradication and disaster relief. Although industry activities are limited in Vietnam, they are active in collaborating with both local government and socio-political organizations in conducting such activities.[4]

Table 1: Status of ban on corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities

Thailand previously banned the publicity of CSR activities by the tobacco industry but, under its Tobacco Product Control Act 2017, now bans the tobacco industry from conducting CSR activities. In Singapore, tobacco industry contributions of financial support for events and activities are not prohibited but the acknowledgement of such contributions (i.e. logo or acknowledgement in other forms) is banned. Figure 2 shows PMI’s contributions to CSR activities are the most in Indonesia and the Philippines where it is growing its market.

Figure 1: Trend of PMI’s CSR activities in the ASEAN region, 2012 – 2018[5]


Governments should ban all tobacco-related CSR activities. Restricting such activities and banning their publicity are ineffective interim measures. It is important that government officials and departments are not beneficiaries of tobacco industry grants, nor should they endorse these activities.

[1] W. Jirathanapiwat et al. Hijacking ‘Sustainability’ from the SDGs: Review of Tobacco Related CSR activities in the ASEAN Region, August 2017, Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA), Bangkok. Thailand.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance. (2019). SEATCA Tobacco Advertising, Promotion and Sponsorship Index: Implementation of Article 13 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in ASEAN Countries, 2019. Bangkok: Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance.
[4] HealthBridge. Tobacco industry surveillance database; Philippines Tobacco Industry Interference Report, 2016
[5] PMI Charitable Contribution 2012 – 2018