Cannabis companies engage in “corporate social responsibility” activities similar to what tobacco companies do

The tobacco companies (and some other companies) use “corporate social responsibility” programs in which the companies stress some socially desirable behavior — such as affirmative action in hiring or supporting cultural institutions — to distract attention from the fact that they engage in predatory marketing of a dangerous product. As the legal cannabis industry emerges, Tanner Wakefield, Dorie Apollonio and I wondered if it was engaging in similar activities as the tobacco industry.

Based on an assessment of 9 major cannabis companies in the US and Canada, the answer is “yes”.

Our new paper Content Analysis of the Corporate Social Responsibility Practices of 9 Major Cannabis Companies in Canada and the US in JAMA Network Open presents the results in detail.

Here are the Key Points and abstract:

Key Points

Question  What are the corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices of the cannabis industry and how do they compare with tobacco industry practices?

Findings  This qualitative study of 9 cannabis companies determined that they engaged in CSR activities nominally to mitigate the negative effects of cannabis prohibition; promoted diversity, equity, and inclusion; made charitable contributions; promoted cannabis medical utility and access; and addressed cannabis industry harms. Cannabis companies’ CSR strategies were similar to those used by tobacco companies to advance their interests and recruit third-party organizations as allies.

Meaning  These findings suggest that these cannabis companies developed CSR initiatives similar to those used by the tobacco industry to influence politics and regulation, and this should be considered when evaluating commercial determinants of health.

Abstract

Importance  The cannabis industry has sought to normalize itself and expand its markets in the 21st century. One strategy used by companies to generate positive public relations is corporate social responsibility (CSR). It is critical to understand these efforts to influence the public and politicians given the risks of increased cannabis use.

Objectives  To analyze cannabis industry CSR behaviors, determine their characteristics, and compare their practices with those of the tobacco industry.

Design, Setting, and Participants  This qualitative study of CSR activities conducted between January 1, 2012, and December 31, 2021, evaluated 9 of the 10 largest publicly traded cannabis companies in the US and Canada. Data were collected from August 1 to December 31, 2021. The 10th company was excluded because it engaged in cannabis-based pharmaceutical sales but not CSR. A systematic review of corporate websites and Nexis Uni was performed, resulting in collection of 153 news articles, press releases, and Web pages. Charitable and philanthropic actions were included. Themes were identified and interpreted using modified grounded theory.

Main Outcomes and Measures  CSR activities and spending.

Results  Nine major cannabis companies in the US and Canada engaged in CSR activities that encouraged increased consumption and targeted marginalized communities. Companies claimed these activities would mitigate the harms of cannabis prohibition, promote diversity, expand access to medical cannabis, and support charitable causes. They developed educational programs, sustainability initiatives, and voluntary marketing codes and used strategies similar to those used by tobacco companies to recruit public interest organizations as allies.

Conclusions and Relevance  These findings suggest that cannabis companies developed CSR strategies comparable to those used by the tobacco industry to influence regulation, suggesting that cannabis companies should be included when addressing commercial determinants of health.

The full citation is: Wakefield T, Glantz SA, Apollonio DE. Content Analysis of the Corporate Social Responsibility Practices of 9 Major Cannabis Companies in Canada and the US. JAMA Netw Open. 2022 Aug 1;5(8):e2228088. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.28088. PMID: 35997980. It is available here.

Published by Stanton Glantz

Stanton Glantz is a retired Professor of Medicine who served on the University of California San Francisco faculty for 45 years. He conducts research on tobacco and cannabis control and cardiovascular disease/

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