Background: Recent attempts by large tobacco companies to represent themselves as socially responsible have been widely dismissed as image management. Existing research supports such claims by pointing to the failings and misleading nature of corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. However, few studies have focused in depth on what tobacco companies hoped to achieve through CSR or reflected on the extent to which these ambitions have been realised.
Methods and findings: Iterative searching relating to CSR strategies was undertaken of internal British American Tobacco (BAT) documents, released through litigation in the US. Relevant documents (764) were indexed and qualitatively analysed. In the past decade, BAT has actively developed a wide-ranging CSR programme. Company documents indicate that one of the key aims of this programme was to help the company secure access to policymakers and, thereby, increase the company's chances of influencing policy decisions. Taking the UK as a case study, this paper demonstrates the way in which CSR can be used to renew and maintain dialogue with policymakers, even in ostensibly unreceptive political contexts. In practice, the impact of this political use of CSR is likely to be context specific; depending on factors such as policy élites' understanding of the credibility of companies as a reliable source of information.
Conclusions: The findings suggest that tobacco company CSR strategies can enable access to and dialogue with policymakers and provide opportunities for issue definition. CSR should therefore be seen as a form of corporate political activity. This underlines the need for broad implementation of Article 5.3 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Measures are needed to ensure transparency of interactions between all parts of government and the tobacco industry and for policy makers to be made more aware of what companies hope to achieve through CSR.