Big Tobacco: absolving the corporate conscience



After my enraged outburst against the seemingly callous indifference of the big tobacco companies to the immense suffering they cause to millions of families around the world, I decided I should do a bit more than just rant and rave.

So, taking a deep breath, I wrote to the chairs of the boards of the two big UK based companies, inviting them to come with me to meet some bereaved parents whose babies died suddenly and unexpectedly and for whom, their own addiction to cigarettes was undoubtedly a contributory factor. I didn’t expect anything great, but I felt that maybe, if they did accept and were to hear, first hand, these families’ stories, maybe, just maybe, it might touch something.




Richard Burrows: Chair of Board of Directors, British American Tobacco
Richard Burrows: Chair of Board of Directors, British American Tobacco
Mark Williamson Chair of Board of Directors, Imperial Tobacco
Mark Williamson Chair of Board of Directors, Imperial Tobacco

As I looked, on their websites, at the ordinary, human faces of the directors of these companies, I felt once more saddened and angry: surely, these were normal human beings, just like you and me, with friends and families whom they loved and cared for. And yet, somehow, these people could sit in their offices and corporate board rooms, thinking about profits and marketing strategies and all the other things that directors think about, while blocking off the death and suffering their products are causing.

After a long gap, I did hear back from the head of corporate affairs at British American Tobacco. Not surprisingly, they turned down my offer for a meeting with bereaved parents. As they pointed out, it is probably ‘not appropriate for us to play the role of adviser on public health issues.’



“We clearly acknowledge the reported risks related to smoking while pregnant and explicitly endorse the advice of health professionals such as yourself to refrain from smoking during pregnancy. We also agree that people should not smoke in the vicinity of children.”

– British American Tobacco


Imperial Tobacco has remained silent.


So does acknowledging the risks absolve the corporate conscience?

And meanwhile, while hundreds of babies die as a result of exposure to parental cigarette smoke, and millions worldwide suffer and die of diseases caused by tobacco, the corporate giants will continue to manufacture and promote their wares.

This coming week, the High Court in London will rule on a challenge by British American Tobacco PLC, Imperial Tobacco Group PLC, Japan Tobacco International and Philip Morris International Inc. against the UK parliament’s vote to ban branded packaging of cigarettes. If the High Court rules in favour of the government, this will come into effect in May next year, marking a huge step forward in the battle against tobacco, and following Australia who went that way in 2012 and have since seen smoking prevalence decline from 19.4% to 17.2% (with a quarter of that decline being attributed to the introduction of plain packaging).

I don’t know how much the court case will have cost, but I suspect it is not unreasonable to guess that hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money has been spent in fighting the challenge, money that could, instead, have been invested in health, education or welfare. And that, too, makes me angry.



4 thoughts on “Big Tobacco: absolving the corporate conscience

  1. I have found in my work over the past decades that families rarely associate infant death with cigarette exposure. I would often hear from families that they knew about lung disease and some knew about the risks of heart disease but rarely did they know about tobacco exposure and sudden death in infancy. There are gaps here in the US when it comes to education of the relationship between cigarette exposure and sudden infant deaths. We can do better. Thanks for not being silent Peter!

  2. Dear Peter.

    I find it surprising that such a laid-back, tolerant and calm person as yourself should feel such anger. My own opinion of tobacco companies is that they are something to be grateful for, so I thought I’d share my view in case it helps you to be less angry.

    We can surmise from the illegal drugs trade how the world would differ if tobacco weren’t legal and regulated. Large areas of the world, particularly in South and Central America, are ungovernable and have huge crime rates and thousands of annual murders due to drug trafficking. The end users also regularly die from overdoses due to the wide variability of the strengths of the drugs they take. Crime rates in consumer countries are also elevated by crimes secondary to drug dealing and vast amounts of police time and tax-payers’ money are used on fighting drugs crime that could be spent on other things. As you can tell, I am in favour of legalising and regulating drugs.

    I am therefore grateful that tobacco is legal and regulated. If it weren’t, there would, in my opinion, be additional ungovernable areas in the world along the supply chain and increased crime including increased murders. And as we know from the failure of drugs criminalisation in stopping usage, the number of people smoking, if it were illegal, would be unlikely to be significantly different and instead it would be harder for doctors to advise on, and monitor, the effects of smoking because it would become more covert. Advice on the dangers of alcohol and smoking of parents on their babies is much more widespread than similar advice about illegal drugs as far as I can tell. Conceivably, more babies might die from their parents’ smoking if it were not legal and regulated.

    Tobacco companies are, in my opinion, a critical part of tobacco being legal and regulated. It has to be produced somehow. It doesn’t seem logical to me to support tobacco being legal and regulated without supporting the existence of tobacco companies. They have behaved appallingly in the past and I welcome their increased regulation, but I am very grateful for their existence and feel very little anger towards them.

    I do feel anger however towards mothers that smoke, drink or take drugs during pregnancy and towards parents who smoke near to their children. I find it hard to excuse them on the grounds that they are addicted; lots of people stop smoking when they become pregnant. You are certainly more compassionate than me in this regard and I will try to see it your way a little more.

    Best wishes,
    Your cousin David.

    1. Thanks for that David – yes, I agree with you that we have got it completely wrong with the ‘war’ on drugs and the approach taken over the years has undoubtedly caused a lot of damage. On the same basis, I don’t think criminalizing tobacco would help in any way. But I still cannot understand how people can continue to work for and support a trade knowing that it causes such misery and loss of innocent lives – I find it difficult to see this any differently from those who engage in and promote the arms trade. I guess it is because I have spent time over the years with so many parents and families who have suffered because of this that I cannot be angry with the mothers: they are victims of the greed (and I can’t see any motivation other than greed, though perhaps I am too blinkered because of this) of the directors, managers, and share holders who continue to produce tobacco and market it, seemingly targeting the most vulnerable (young people in Western countries in the past, those in developing countries now that it is more regulated here). So please forgive my anger, and thank you for wakening me to a different perspective.

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