Cannabis Companies Use Similar Social Responsibility Practices to Big Tobacco, Study Finds
The corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices developed by cannabis companies in the United States and Canada are similar to those used by the tobacco industry to influence regulations, a new investigation by experts at the University of California San Francisco Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education has found.
Published in JAMA Network Open, the investigation examined the CSR activities of large publicly traded cannabis companies in North America over the past decade. The researchers found that companies often implemented measures similar to those of tobacco companies, such as developing their own educational initiatives and funding medical research.
While the cannabis brands may argue that these activities help to expand medical cannabis access and mitigate the harms caused by previous cannabis prohibition, the investigators caution that public health actors should be wary of such CSR activities as they may be less effective than independent educational initiatives and serve to advance corporate interests.
CSR activities in the cannabis space
CSR practices are generally used by companies to foster public good will and ensure that the company’s operations are socially acceptable (or beneficial) in terms of its economic, social, and environmental impacts. For the nascent cannabis industry, CSR practices are also a way of normalizing cannabis use and a way to expand the industry’s reach post-prohibition.
In this new investigation, experts from the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education evaluated the CSR activities conducted by nine of the top ten largest cannabis companies in North America by market cap between 2012 and 2021. To do this, the experts analyzed industry documents, including news articles, press releases, and information posted on company websites, for the mention of events or initiatives that could be considered CSR activity.
The investigators identified five key themes in cannabis CSR practices:
- Campaigns aiming to mitigate the harmful effects of prohibition.
- Hiring initiatives to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion.
- Making charitable contributions.
- Funding research into cannabis’ therapeutic uses and promoting medical cannabis access.
- Initiatives to combat the harms of legalization.
For example, Trulieve provided $15,000 for internships and $20,000 for scholarships to prepare Black students for careers in the cannabis industry. Green Thumb Industries and Cresco Labs both created business incubators and licensing assistance programs for members of racial and ethnic minority populations. Five companies publicly announced intent to support other efforts and organizations seeking to expunge criminal records for past cannabis-related offenses; six of the nine companies examined also joined industry organizations supporting restorative criminal justice.
Canopy Growth, Columbia Care, Trulieve, and Curaleaf Holdings were all also active in the medical cannabis space, either through directly funding medical cannabis research or access projects, or from setting up their own initiatives, such as Trulieve’s TruVet program, which helps to connect veterans with medical cannabis prescribers.
Three companies claimed to be taking action to combat youth cannabis use and drugged driving. This came either in the form of marketing regulations or the development of youth education materials, which the companies claimed should reduce advertising exposure and cannabis’ appeal to youths.
While these activities may look like noble endeavors on the surface, the authors of the investigation take a much more cautious line.
“I think we need to remember that this is an industry selling a product. And just because there is merit to addressing certain issues or harms, that doesn’t mean we should forget that they are businesses seeking to make a profit,” study author Tanner Wakefield told Medscape.
“While CSR activities may have some potential benefits or apparent legitimacy, we have to remember that CSR is also a form of marketing and political influence.”
Think critically about corporate CSR activities, experts advise
As the authors point out in their investigation, the CSR practices adopted by the cannabis industry are very similar to those already in use within the tobacco sector.
Yet the tobacco industry’s youth smoking prevention programs have been criticized for presenting themselves as alternatives to increased regulation. Previous research has shown that these programs can actually contain “forbidden fruit” messaging that undermines the core smoking prevention message.
Notably, the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control defines many tobacco CSR activities as being a form of promotional advertising.
The authors suggest that large actors in the cannabis industry may be using CSR activities in a similar way. For example, cannabis company donations and partnerships with advocacy organizations and Pride celebrations may be intended to generate goodwill and increase consumption among minority and LGBTQ+ communities, which has previously also been done by tobacco groups.
“The main message from this paper is that this is an industry selling a product with health impacts,” said Wakefield. “We have seen how the tobacco industry in the past has used corporate social responsibility practices to insulate itself politically, engender public good will, and encourage consumption of tobacco products with harmful health effects.”
Cannabis companies funding further research into medical cannabis may also be a mirror of the tobacco industry’s pharmaceuticalization and reorientation toward producing nicotine replacement therapy patches. But not all of the cannabis industry’s external research funding was directed towards medical cannabis.
“[Another] similarity to the tobacco industry is that they would provide funding or assistance to nonprofit groups that are not necessarily tied to cannabis or tobacco,” Wakefield noted.
For example, seven companies made charitable donations at the national, state, and local levels to support education, breast cancer research, mental health, or veteran-related causes. Five companies also gave financial support or donated supplies to Covid-19 pandemic relief efforts.
“Further study is warranted regarding cannabis companies’ use of CSR to influence regulation, improve public image, and secure market access,” the investigation authors wrote. “Little or no research on marketing codes, sustainability, employee protections, and diversity within the industry has been performed, including whether incubator programs provide applicants with full business autonomy.”
While this study was limited to text documents from only the largest market actors, the researchers suggest that employee and customer interviews could also be a valuable addition in future studies. Understanding the intentions behind cannabis CSR activities and why they focus on certain issues may also be key to understanding the effects of these practices on the general public.