Cannabis Industry Cribs Big Tobacco’s Social Outreach Moves

Cannabis companies in the United States and Canada have developed corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices that mirror those of the tobacco industry, according to recent data.

A qualitative study of cannabis companies’ CSR practices over 10 years found, for example, that dispensary Trulieve provided $15,000 for internships and $20,000 for scholarships to prepare Black students for careers in the cannabis industry. The tobacco industry has used similar initiatives to foster good will and market its products to minority populations.

Tanner Wakefield

“The main message from this paper is that this is an industry selling a product with health impacts,” said study author Tanner Wakefield, an associate specialist at the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco. “We have seen how the tobacco industry in the past has used corporate social responsibility practices to insulate itself politically, engender public good will, and encourage consumption of tobacco products with harmful health effects.”

The study was published online August 23 in JAMA Network Open.

A Double Agenda

The investigators identified nine of the 10 largest publicly traded cannabis companies in the US and Canada and examined the CSR activities that they conducted between January 1, 2012, and December 31, 2021. The investigators also conducted a systematic review of corporate websites and Nexis Uni articles that identified 153 news stories, press releases, and web pages that communicated about cannabis companies’ charitable and philanthropic activities.

Investigators identified themes in CSR activities by categorizing the language and informational patterns in the evidence they collected. They divided CSR practices into five categories, consisting of campaigns supposedly mitigating the harmful effects of past cannabis prohibition; initiatives characterized as promoting or increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion; charitable contributions; researching therapeutic cannabis uses and increasing medical access; and efforts claiming to address harms related to cannabis legalization.

The investigators observed that Green Thumb Industries and Cresco Labs set up “business incubators” and licensing assistance programs targeted toward members of racial and ethnic minority populations and communities most affected by cannabis prohibition. Canopy Growth Corporation supported research into whether medical cannabis could alleviate sleep disorders or treat mental health conditions. The company also collaborated with Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy and Parent Action on Drugs to create materials for preventing cannabis abuse among youth.

“I think we need to remember that this is an industry selling a product,” said Wakefield. “And just because there is merit to addressing certain issues or harms, that doesn’t mean we should forget that they are businesses seeking to make a profit. While CSR activities may have some potential benefits or apparent legitimacy, we have to remember that CSR is also a form of marketing and political influence.”

The investigators concluded that these CSR activities were similar to CSR strategies that the tobacco industry previously had used to encourage consumption, target marginalized communities, influence regulation, and advance corporate interests.

“A similarity to the tobacco industry is that they would provide funding or assistance to nonprofit groups that are not necessarily tied to cannabis or tobacco,” said Wakefield. For example, the investigators noted that cannabis companies contributed funding for breast cancer research and for veterans.

Moreover, the investigators observed “similarities in terms of focus and orientation toward special interest populations,” said Wakefield. Those special populations included the LGBTQ communities, and activities included sponsoring or participating in pride celebrations and releasing limited-edition pride products.

Overall, the cannabis industry engages in CSR activities that appear to mitigate the harmful effects of its products and operations, said Wakefield.

‘Incomplete Information’

Jason W. Busse, DC, PhD, associate director of the Michael G. DeGroote Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, described the study as rigorous, but with limitations acknowledged by the authors.

Jason Busse DC PhD

“Understanding how these companies are promoting themselves and justifying themselves as good corporate citizens is important,” said Busse. “The investigators have undertaken a comprehensive study and identified CSR activities that cannabis companies are engaging in. We know from past experiences with tobacco companies that these activities may be used in part to encourage less regulation and increase market access.”

One constraint of the study is that the investigators used documents that were in the public domain, as opposed to internal company information. “The investigators were limited to the information that they were able to access,” said Busse. “Unless you use the Freedom of Information Act to compel companies to release internal documents, you don’t have that information. They haven’t done that, and it is almost a certainty that the authors had to work with incomplete information.”

The investigators suggest a need for oversight of the cannabis industry’s CSR practices, and Busse agreed with this assessment. “While engagement in social responsibility activities by cannabis corporations may have positive results, there should be independent assessment of outcomes. For example, sponsoring research may be problematic if such support comes with strings attached, such as suppressing or modifying unfavorable findings,” he said.

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health. Wakefield and Busse report no relevant financial relationships.

JAMA Network Open. Published online August 23, 2022. Full text.

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