The Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG) at the University of Bath recently re-launched the website TobaccoTactics to monitor and report on the tobacco industry. It’s well worth a long visit, especially for researchers, policymakers, journalists, and others wanting to find out more about the various strategies and arguments tobacco companies use to promote their products, lobby governments, evade tobacco control policies, and distract from the enormous amount of harm caused by the industry.

One of the topics discussed on the TobaccoTactics website is greenwashing — a term used to describe efforts by controversial industries to make their products and/or companies seem more environmentally conscious than they really are.

Greenwashing isn’t new. As TobaccoTactics points out, the term has been used by environmentalists since the 1980s to describe misleading practices in a wide range of industries, from oil companies claiming to lead the charge on climate change to logging companies replacing virgin rainforest with monoculture trees and calling it “sustainable.”

Big Tobacco may not have written the greenwashing playbook, but it’s certainly following it. In an effort to clean up their reputation to increase profits, tobacco companies tout initiatives to de-litter beaches, donate to environmental organizations, and reduce their carbon footprint. A graphic on TobaccoTactics originally created by tobacco giant Philip Morris International attempts to position tobacco as a more environmentally friendly product than tea or chocolate by comparing the amount of water needed per weight of finished product. What the graphic fails to disclose (but TobaccoTactics and the World Health Organization point out) is that tea and chocolate don’t kill their consumers.

Source: https://tobaccotactics.org/wiki/greenwashing/ (original from the Philip Morris International report, Communication on Progress 2016, p. 61)

It’s a classic example of how greenwashing allows tobacco companies to look like they’re reducing the negative impact of their products, without any standards, goals, or metrics to hold them accountable. As TobaccoTactics notes, there’s no industry-wide format for what data should be disclosed and when, no standard method for tracking the scale of the environmental impact of tobacco products, no goals to aim for, and no accountability to remediate the environmental damage caused by the product throughout its life cycle (from growing to disposal). This allows tobacco companies to report progress without necessarily having a verifiable environmental impact.

Backed by strong academic research with thorough citations, TobaccoTactics explores this and other topics in meaningful detail and in a way that’s easy for casual readers to understand. To find out more about greenwashing and other strategies used globally by tobacco companies to attract consumers and increase profits, as well as a list of organizations and individuals associated with the industry, visit TobaccoTactics.org.

By Robyn Correll-Carlyle and Melissa Maitin-Shepard