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Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Tobacco in South Korea

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

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Yonsei Law School Student at 2012 KT&G Charitable Distribution of Charcoal Photo: FNNews Staff Photographer

In the past, Milton Friedman has argued that companies have minimal ethical and social responsibilities outside of avoiding legal transgressions and satisfying their shareholders, but this position does not seem to have broad public appeal in corporate boardrooms or on main street today.  Definitions of corporate social responsibility (CSR) have not remained static over time, but broadly, it’s founded on an understanding that “business organizations have societal obligations which transcend economic functions” or that there is some “obligation to work for the social betterment” (Epstein 1989, 585; Frederick 1995, 151). In practice, a wide variety of programs and policies can fall under the CSR umbrella, including: scholarships for underprivileged youth, mentoring minority students, donating proceeds for disaster relief, among others. However, see Whitehouse 2006, Carroll 2001, and Wood 1991 for the general academic consensus that there is, well, no consensus on the meaning or implementation of CSR.

Of course, few would suggest that all public displays of corporate social responsibility are disingenuous, but there are ways in which CSR policies and marketing can serve to balance or cloak the ethical exposures of a company. The 2008 greening of BP is one recent visible example. That BP chose a “green” theme that privileged environmental responsibility over many other possible social contributions addressed a significant vulnerability shared by companies in this industry. As we have seen with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill or the 1989 Exxon Valdez incident, the environmental and human cost of securing energy resources can occasionally be spectacularly tragic and very public. So perhaps narratives of corporate social responsibility are not that different from “thin” funhouse mirrors whose distortions function to mask imperfections: the actual person is recognizable, but they look slightly taller and thinner than in reality. Analogously, CSR discourse—that image in the mirror—can be read as the representation of desire, gesturing towards how the company wishes to be seen, rather than what it may actually be. As it is January, our readers’ hearts are no doubt welling up sympathetically, as some of us are probably wishing for a post-holiday thin mirror as well.

In terms of industries that supply socially problematic goods such as tobacco, skeptics have argued that CSR activities constitute little more than white-washing. Anti-tobacco NGOs have even questioned whether tobacco companies can engage in any meaningful philanthropy at all (Palazzo & Richter, 2005). For instance, can consumers take youth tobacco prevention programs seriously when they are promoted by a seller of that product? It’s a tricky question, though the extreme position that absolutely no social good can come of tobacco CSR is probably intellectually indefensible. However, as the globalization of tobacco control programs has meant that corporations in diverse corners of the world have been faced with increasingly strict limitations on tobacco advertisement, CSR has arguably provided opportunities to circumvent such restraints.

To take a look at a possible example: in 2012, the South Korean tobacco company, Korea Today & Global, (KT&G, formerly Korea Tobacco and Ginseng, formerly a government monopoly) donated charcoal to heat the homes of the poor. Smiling students from an elite university (Yonsei Law School) were pictured in newspapers lugging charcoal while wearing blue KT&G branded aprons. On the KT&G CSR website, the headline reads: “KT&G 2012 Sharing Love and Charcoal.”[1]

distribution of charcoal KT&G

Students dropping off a pile of heating charcoal in an alley in a slum or shanty town part of town.

The apron is the only garment that is noted numerous times in the text and is notably visible in accompanying photographs. In the group photo from the same event, the aprons–at least in the front–seem to offer sharp creases that aren’t visible in all of the photographs (see first pic). Also, they seem to be possibly free of charcoal stains.

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Students at the 2012 KT&G event. Source: KT&G CSR site (link above)

In the past, some KT&G CSR contributions seem to have been more directly targeted at balancing out the potential harm of tobacco. In 2000, KT&G donated tuberculosis medication and equipment worth about 500 hundred million won (at today’s exchange rate, about 470k USD) to North Korea via the Eugene Bell Foundation. This donation, in effect, subsidized the therapeutic care of a pulmonary ailment that was also exacerbated by the very product that they sold. This philanthropy also coincided with the inception of a North-South Korean tobacco joint venture project, and was part of a series of CSR contributions that centered on North Korea, and on the tragedy of divided families (from the Korean War). Interestingly, the joint venture’s first product was trumpeted as the first co-designed, jointly produced and consumed cigarette brand, and was called “One Mind.” Since it was sold on both sides of the 38th parallel, South Koreans could now imagine themselves smoking the same cigarettes as their family members in the North—as in, you could not see them, but you could at least smoke the same cigarettes. Ultimately, KT&G was not only positioning itself as a socially responsible corporate citizen, but it was also offering a narrative where smoking was patriotic and pro-unification.

For colleagues who work on alcohol, pharmaceuticals, or other substances, have you noticed a rise in corporate social responsibility strategies?


[1] Literally, it says “Charcoal Sharing of Love.” There is some wordplay, as love can be shared or distributed just as charcoal in Korean. Well, linguistically, that is.



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