Category winner:
CSR and the Tobacco Industry: A Contradiction in Terms?

Share this page:
This case won the Ethics and Social Responsibility category at The Case Centre Awards and Competitions 2015.
The case

Who – the protagonist

The CEO of a leading tobacco company. 


In 1492, Columbus noticed some ‘strange leaves’ in the New World. They were the tobacco plant, Nicotiana tabacum, which had already been in long use in the Americas, including as a hallucinogenic by shamans and for general medicinal purposes.


In 1880, a young American, James Bonsack, invented the Bonsack machine, making it possible to mass-produce cigarettes by rolling 200 at a time. By the start of the twentieth century, smoking began to rise dramatically in industrial countries. Movie stars, doctors, and even Santa Claus were used to encourage the use of these ‘naturally gentle, mild and safe’ products – and to guarantee a pleasant experience.


For many decades, smoking was portrayed as fashionable, cool and appealing. But in 1998, following lawsuits brought against tobacco companies by American smokers, 35 million pages of internal documents were released to the public, proving that tobacco companies had deliberately hid evidence that proved tobacco is harmful.


The protagonist is CEO of one of the largest tobacco companies in the world, offering a huge variety of branded products adapted for nearly every country across the globe.

Key quote

‘Tobacco companies are not like any other companies. Tobacco is the only legal product that kills half of its consumers.’ – from the case

What next?

How can this tobacco company engage in CSR (corporate social responsibility) activities? Isn’t the idea a contradiction in terms? Might it be possible to become the leader in CSR, not only in the tobacco industry but in industry in general? Or should the company just accept that it is in a ‘particular type of industry’?

Interested in finding out more?

Download the case and teaching note

Educators can login to view a free educator preview copy of this case and its teaching note.

CSR and the Tobacco Industry: A Contradiction in Terms?
Ref 713-067-1 
Teaching note
Ref 713-067-8

The authors

Susan Schneider and Anca PintiliiSusan Schneider and Anca Pintilii

Susan and Anca look back on their experience of writing the case and explain why they think it’s popular with students.

Sensitive topic

The case is popular because it raises the question of how sensitive, controversial industries, such as tobacco, can truly engage in corporate social responsibility. It elicits vivid debate about the role of business in society and ethics and is usually highly relevant at a personal level to both smoking and non-smoking students.

Drawing wider lessons

Lessons can be drawn for other controversial industries, such as weapons or prostitution. Can these industries be truly responsible? It also raises the issue of the boundary between what is legal and what is ethical/moral – and by whose standards? In addition, other industries, such as mining, telecommunications and even pharmaceuticals, can also be discussed in terms of ethical issues as well as the extent to which potential hazards are acknowledged and addressed.

Tips and advice

Susan: The main advice is to gain access to all the data you need and to have in mind the issue you want to address, the discussion that you hope to be evoked from the case, and the relevant framing, both theoretical and practical.

Anca: I would say consult all the sources, be authentic, and believe in the subject. Also, it is good to imagine how the case might be perceived by your audience and to try to make it to the point.

Final words

Susan: It is important to stay close to the data while being creative in telling the story. It is also inspiring to believe in the importance of the issue being addressed as well as to recognise that you may have your own biases. I found it useful to invite representatives from the tobacco industry into class, and it was very interesting to hear their viewpoints.

Anca: It was important for me to create a synergy with my Professor, Susan Schneider, who gave me the liberty to be creative.

About the authors

Susan Schneider is Professor Emeritus at GSEM Geneva School of Economics and Management.

Anca Pintilii studied for her Msc. in Management at GSEM Geneva School of Economics and Management.


View a full list of featured cases