Objectives: We explored what corporate "credibility" means to tobacco companies to determine why it matters to companies and what a lack of credibility means to them.
Methods: We collected documents from an online tobacco industry document archive and analyzed them with an interpretive approach.
Results: Tobacco companies conceptualized credibility not as being worthy of belief or confidence but as inspiring it. Thus, credibility was understood primarily as altering public perception of the industry. "Truth" was largely absent from tobacco industry conceptualizations of credibility, which were linked with "responsibility" and "reasonableness." However, industry research found that the public regarded credibility and responsibility differently, expecting these to entail truth telling, advertising reductions, less harmful products, apologies for deception, making amends, or exiting the tobacco business altogether. Overall, industry credibility-building projects failed repeatedly.
Conclusions: Public health discourse increasingly attends to the roles of corporations in promoting disease. Industries such as tobacco and alcohol have been identified as profiting from harmful products. Yet corporations' ability to continue business as usual requires sustaining an implicit societal assent to their activities that depends on corporate credibility. For public health to address corporate disease promotion effectively, undermining corporate credibility may be strategically important.