World No Tobacco Day 2013: India takes a close look at tobacco companies

World Health Organization and activists are criticizing tobacco companies' efforts at corporate social responsibility as thinly veiled marketing schemes on its 26th annual World No Tobacco Day, May 31.

Biswaranjan Rout/AP
Indian students perform next to a sand sculpture created by sand artist Sudarshan Pattnaik during an awareness campaign on the eve of World No Tobacco Day, at the Bay of Bengal coast in Puri, Orissa state, India, Thursday.

When the founder of the city of Lucknow's Red Brigade, a vigilante anti-sexual harassment organization, was awarded the Godfrey Philips National Bravery Award earlier this month in Delhi, she didn’t realize she might have been taking part in a public relations stunt by big tobacco in India.

Usha Vishwakarma says she felt proud of her organization when she was presented the award and a check for nearly $1,000 by a veteran Bollywood actor and a top minister.

Ms. Vishwakarma, however, is now in the awkward position of being urged by friends to return the award. "I didn't even know that Godfrey Philips was a tobacco company," she says. "If I did I would not have accepted the award."

Indeed, a casual visitor to the company’s award website would have to look in the fine print, under “terms of use” to find one sentence that implies the bravery awards have something to do with a tobacco company.

That conflict comes as the World Health Organization and activists attempt to draw attention to tobacco’s advertising, promotion, and sponsorship with its 26th annual World No Tobacco Day on May 31.

This is "a classic example of how tobacco companies are using corporate social responsibility (CSR) to clean up their image," says Bobby Ramakant of the Vote for Health campaign in Lucknow. He adds, "If Godfrey Philips must do corporate social responsibility they must stop selling tobacco, because tobacco products are the main risk factor for noncommunicable diseases, which in turn are responsible for two-thirds of health-related deaths."

Some 2,500 people die daily in India because of tobacco-related health issues, according to the National Organization for Tobacco Eradication. That high number is attributed in part to the glamorization of smoking and constant advertising, say experts.

Godfrey Philips India Ltd., which manufactures Marlboro cigarettes in India, is the country's second largest cigarette company. From 1990-2003, the company named its bravery award after its Red & White cigarette brand. In response to protests that the awards were surrogate advertising, however, they changed the name to Godfrey Philips National Bravery Award in 2004.

A 2004 World Health Organization report criticized tobacco companies efforts at corporate social responsibility as thinly veiled marketing schemes. A year earlier, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a first of its kind global health treaty, urged countries to prohibit tobacco advertising and sponsorships, including indirect advertising.

India is one of 175 countries to ratify the health treaty, which a court in the Karnataka state in 2010 used to stop the government-owned Tobacco Board from sponsoring a meeting of global tobacco owners in Bangalore.

A United Nations award for corporate social responsibility at the Rio+20 summit last year to the Indian Tobacco Company, which has the largest market share in cigarettes in the country, had caused an uproar among tobacco activists.

"There needs to be greater awareness about the WHO Framework Convention so that people know that CSR is a smart PR outlet for tobacco companies," says Mr. Ramakant of Vote for Health campaign.

A spokesperson for Godfrey Philips India did not respond to request for comment. The corporate social responsibility section of their website reads, "We ... not only recognize the importance of being a responsible corporate citizen but our identity as a cigarette manufacturing Company ... imposes even a greater responsibility upon us to take it further."  

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