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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The illusion of righteousness: corporate social responsibility practices of the alcohol industry

Sungwon Yoon* and Tai-Hing Lam

Author affiliations

Department of Community Medicine & School of Public Health, Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, SAR, China

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Citation and License

BMC Public Health 2013, 13:630  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-13-630

Published: 3 July 2013

Abstract

Background

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has become an integral element of how the alcohol industry promotes itself. The existing analyses of CSR in the alcohol industry point to the misleading nature of these CSR practices. Yet, research has been relatively sparse on how the alcohol industry advances CSR in an attempt to facilitate underlying business interests, and in what ways the ongoing display of industry CSR impacts public health. This paper aims to investigate the alcohol industry’s recent CSR engagements and explain how CSR forms part of the industry’s wider political and corporate strategies.

Methods

Our study used qualitative methods to collect and analyse data. We searched for materials pertaining to CSR activities from websites of three transnational alcohol corporations, social media platforms, media reports and other sources. Relevant documents were thematically analysed with an iterative approach.

Results

Our analysis identified three CSR tactics employed by the alcohol companies which are closely tied in with the industry’s underlying corporate intents. First, the alcohol manufacturers employ CSR as a means to frame issues, define problems and guide policy debates. In doing this, the alcohol companies are able to deflect and shift the blame from those who manufacture and promote alcoholic products to those who consume them. Second, the alcohol corporations promote CSR initiatives on voluntary regulation in order to delay and offset alcohol control legislation. Third, the alcohol corporations undertake philanthropic sponsorships as a means of indirect brand marketing as well as gaining preferential access to emerging alcohol markets.

Conclusions

The increasing penetration and involvement of the alcohol industry into CSR highlights the urgent needs for public health counter actions. Implementation of any alcohol control measures should include banning or restricting the publicity efforts of the industry’s CSR and informing the public of the alcohol industry’s notion of social responsibility. More significantly, an internationally binding instrument should be called for to enable countries to differentiate between genuine concerns and spurious altruism, and in doing so, resist the industry’s attempt to erode alcohol control.

Keywords:
Alcohol industry; Corporate social responsibility; Politics; Alcohol policies; Framework convention