According to recent data, cannabis companies in the United States and Canada have developed corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices that mirror those of the tobacco industry.
A qualitative study of cannabis companies’ CSR practices over 10 years found, for example, that the Trulieve Dispensary provided $15,000 for internships and $20,000 for scholarships to prepare black students for careers in the industry. cannabis industry. The tobacco industry has used similar initiatives to foster goodwill and market its products to minority populations.
“The main message of this article is that this is an industry selling a product with health effects,” said study author Tanner Wakefield, an associate specialist at the Center for Tobacco Control Research. and Education from the University of California, San Francisco. “We have seen how the tobacco industry has used corporate social responsibility practices in the past to insulate itself politically, engender public goodwill, and encourage the consumption of tobacco products with harmful health effects.”
The study has been published online August 23 in Open JAMA Network.
A dual agenda
Investigators identified nine of the 10 largest publicly traded cannabis companies in the United States and Canada and examined the CSR activities they conducted between January 1, 2012 and December 31, 2021. Investigators also performed a systematic review of corporate websites and Nexis Uni articles that identified 153 news stories, press releases and web pages that communicated about the charitable and philanthropic activities of cannabis companies.
Investigators identified themes in CSR activities by categorizing the language and patterns of information in the evidence they collected. They divided CSR practices into five categories, consisting of campaigns meant to mitigate the harmful effects of past cannabis prohibition; initiatives characterized as promoting or increasing diversity, equity and inclusion; charitable donations; researching the therapeutic uses of cannabis and increasing medical access; and efforts purporting to address the harms associated with the legalization of cannabis.
Investigators observed that Green Thumb Industries and Cresco Labs have established “business incubators” and licensing assistance programs for members of racial and ethnic minority populations and communities most affected by drug prohibition. cannabis. Canopy Growth Corporation has supported research to determine if medical cannabis can alleviate sleep disturbances or treat mental health issues. The company also collaborated with Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy and Parent Action on Drugs to create prevention materials cannabis abuse among young people.
“I think we have to remember that this is an industry selling a product,” Wakefield said. “And just because there’s merit in solving some problems or harms doesn’t mean we should forget that these are companies looking to make a profit. Although CSR activities can have benefits potential or perceived legitimacy, we must remember that CSR is also a form of marketing and political influence.”
Investigators concluded that these CSR activities were similar to CSR strategies the tobacco industry had previously used to encourage consumption, target marginalized communities, influence regulation, and advance corporate interests.
“A similarity to the tobacco industry is that it would provide funding or assistance to non-profit groups that are not necessarily cannabis or tobacco related,” Wakefield said. For example, investigators noted that cannabis companies helped fund breast cancer research and for veterans.
Additionally, the investigators observed “similarities in focus and orientation to populations of particular interest,” Wakefield said. These special populations included LGBTQ communities, and activities included sponsoring or participating in Pride celebrations and releasing limited-edition Pride merchandise.
Overall, the cannabis industry engages in CSR activities that appear to mitigate the harmful effects of its products and operations, Wakefield said.
Jason W. Busse, DC, PhD, associate director of the Michael G. DeGroote Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, described the study as rigorous, but with limitations acknowledged by the authors.
“It’s important to understand how these companies market themselves and justify themselves as good corporate citizens,” Busse said. “Investigators undertook an in-depth study and identified the CSR activities that cannabis companies engage in. We know from our past experiences with tobacco companies that these activities can be used in part to encourage less regulation and increasing market access.”
A limitation of the study is that the investigators used documents that were in the public domain, as opposed to internal company information. “Investigators were limited to the information they were able to access,” Busse said. “Unless you’re using the Freedom of Information Act to compel companies to release internal documents, you don’t have that information. They didn’t, and the authors almost certainly had to work with incomplete information.
Investigators suggest a need for oversight of the cannabis industry’s CSR practices, and Busse agrees with this assessment. “While engagement in social responsibility activities by cannabis companies can have positive results, there should be independent evaluation of the results. For example, sponsorship of research can be problematic if such support comes with of conditions, such as removal or modification of unfavorable results,” he said. .
The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health. Wakefield and Busse report no relevant financial relationship.
JAMA network open. Published online August 23, 2022. Full Text.