Cigarettes, Blowing Smoke, and Social Impact

Nine cigarettes. The sea rations that sustained Canadian and American troops at the height of World War Two contained nine name brand cigarettes along with an assortment of high-calorie foods. The generals commanding the Allied war effort insisted that the cigarettes were essential to the morale of the men. By 1945, an estimated 52% of American adults smoked, with yearly per capita consumption rising to north of three thousand cigarettes.

It was a good time to be in the tobacco industry. However, the influence wielded by the big tobacco firms implied an obligation to protect consumers, not just market share. This did not happen. In 1953, internal research conducted by R.J Reynolds chemists found that cigarette smoke “would seem to indicate the presence of carcinogens.[1]” The research was not circulated beyond R.J. Reynolds executives even though it could have fostered positive change across the market long before governments got involved. Fast forward to 1987 to a time when RJR reintroduced their Camel brand of cigarettes using clever artwork featuring “Joe Camel” in sunglasses. While RJR claimed that the marketing artwork was geared toward adult smokers, a 1991 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that, “more children aged five and six years old could recognize Joe Camel than could recognize Mickey Mouse or Fred Flintstone.”[2] RJR could have leveraged this seminal moment by educating young people about the health consequences of smoking; instead, they dismissed the AMA study and defended their marketing strategy.

Great influence demands great responsibility. Whether you realize it or not, most organizations have great influence in the lives of everyday people. While there is recognition about the importance of growing our businesses by doing what we do better than our competitors, many often neglect the responsibility to do good in the world. Recent headlines from the environs of social media also remind us that lives are hurt when big businesses do not prioritize social impact initiatives and follow through.

Positive social impact requires a strategy and dedicated resources. The place to begin is to start with alignment to the corporation’s purpose. And determine where you have influence and can derive some of the greatest impact. The “Where” helps the leadership of the organization identify the right initiatives. Consider beer and wine producers. Many of the players in this area prioritize impacts in alcoholism treatment and the prevention of underage drinking. Anheuser-Busch, for example, has invested more than $1 billion in community-based programs that address alcoholism, impaired driving, and underage drinking. The “Where” is coupled with resources and partnerships. This is positive social impact.

Social impact initiatives should align with an organization’s corporate purpose, beliefs and values. For example, a social media company that values community building and transparency, should be exercising transparency and building stronger communities. If your actions do not align with your values, then your social impact initiatives will be viewed as fraudulent.

Corporate Purpose and Social Impact begins with leadership. Allyson Hewitt of Stanford University says that today’s executives, “need to showcase humanity by intertwining their personal values and stories into a corporate context.” Simply put, if we are called to lead organizations that aspire to positive social impact, we must never forget that consumers, investors, and the members of our team are looking to us to live what we say we value.

[1] Extracted from:

[2] Extracted from: Fischer PM, Schwartz MP, Richards JW Jr, Goldstein AO, Rojas TH. Brand logo recognition by children aged three to six years. Mickey Mouse and Old Joe the Camel. JAMA. 1991 Dec 11;266(22):3145–8. PMID 1956101

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Victoria Pelletier

Senior Executive | Speaker | Author | Passionate Diversity & Inclusion Leader | Forbes Council Member | Networking Champion | Board Director