How working together can expedite the change we need

During my childhood and adolescence, I used to be the delivery boy for the whole family, thanks to the mini market near our home in Beirut. Dad used to repeatedly ask me to bring some soft drinks, grocery items, and cigarettes. I was a revolutionary child, and buying cigarettes did not conform to this revolutionary ethic of mine. “Get your own cigarettes, dad, and feel free to use the balcony! Didn’t you see the picture of the lungs of smokers in the science book?!” And what do you know, my father always respected my desire and fetched his own smokes—albeit reluctantly. I grew up with the idea of being health oriented, environmentally friendly, joined the Green Club at school, became an advocate of SDGs and an ambassador of UNGC Lebanon network at a later stage. Detesting smoking and loving sustainability grew within me in tandem.

In the year 2015, I had the chance to meet with Jennifer Motles, Director of Social Impact and Sustainably at Philip Morris International. We met as students at Harvard Business School (HBS). Jenny works for a company which is a major contributor to health problems and diseases caused by smoking cigarettes. I always thought of her role and company as a contradiction in terms. What has sustainability to do with tobacco?  I used to be skeptical that this industry could even merit my asking of the question, let alone be considered as a potential problem solver.

Over the years, I have had deep discussions with Jenny on how can a tobacco company (if ever) be considered sustainable, and how (if possible) can the tobacco industry help eradicate smoking. These discussions were triggered by the fact that the number of smokers according to World Health Organization (WHO) is essentially bound to remain unchanged at more than one billion for the foreseeable future. The academic in me has always been curious to know more about this toxic and rejected industry which in turn has resulted in probing deeper insights about the major players and trends in it.

I have learned that although most tobacco companies have innovated and currently sell alternative, less harmful, nicotine containing products, most of them appear to be continuing to base their business strategies on expanding their portfolios and growing cigarette sales with no plan to phase out cigarettes in the near future.

Different is the case of Philip Morris International (PMI), who decided to use technology and innovation to solve the problem of cigarette smoking, choosing to use their own new technologies to replace cigarettes altogether. When I found out they had changed their purpose (in the year 2016) to deliver a smoke-free future with the aim of accelerating the end of cigarettes for the benefit of consumers, the company, and society, my perception started to change. I realized that this awful company could actually serve a valuable purpose. Like in anything, actions speak louder than words, and that is why having the right metrics in place helps prove that this transformation is actually happening.

I am neither a consultant nor an employee of PMI, but reading these Business Transformation Metrics was enough justification to motivate me to co-author an article with Jenny on “How working together can expedite the Change We Need”. I visited Lausanne a few months ago, toured the headquarters of PMI and discovered the new culture which accompanied this strategic transformation and couldn’t hide my great impression with the change that is taking place.

Over the past three years, approximately 7.3 million adult smokers around the world have stopped smoking and switched to PMI’s heated tobacco product, which is currently available for sale in 48 markets in key cities or nationwide under the IQOS brand. PMI developed Business Transformation Metrics, on which the company reports periodically in its Sustainability Report. In 2018, smoke-free products represented more than 5 percent of PMI’s shipment volume and more than 13 percent of its net revenues, but they already represented 60 percent of its global commercial expenditure and 92 percent of its global R&D expenditure.

Yet to this day, the stigma of Big Tobacco remains. As a result, most stakeholders, especially those fiercely anti-tobacco ones, continue to maintain a blanket exclusion and refuse to engage with tobacco companies. Now, if major stakeholders refuse to engage with cigarette companies because they detest cigarettes, does it make sense to refuse to engage with the one company actively working to bring smoking to an end? In my opinion, this is a must. Not all cigarette companies are the same; as long as society doesn’t mind, some will inevitably continue to offer choice, and thus grow their cigarette business. It is our responsibility, as civil society, to give the right signals and recognize the actions we consider worthy.

It might sound counterintuitive to some. After all, I am an advisor of the Lebanese UN Global Compact Network, and PMI got delisted as a member of the UNGC in 2017. Yet it is my personal view that cigarette companies are not all the same, much like oil companies, or soft drink companies, etc. Some will read this with skepticism. I realize that, and respect their position. But it is my belief that the transformational endeavors undertaken by PMI will put pressure on other tobacco companies to be more proactive and ultimately help lead the way to accelerate change, the right kind of change, ridding the world of cigarettes the sooner.

For me the golden formula would be inclusion = engagement = collaboration which is the essence of SDG17 and indispensable to achieving the other 16 SDGs, and their 169 targets. The nature of the tobacco industry, even with its well-deserved bad reputation, does not mean that we should leave it behind in our collective efforts and make this world a better one. Everybody’s effort is needed, especially if they are genuinely aligned with what we want to achieve.

About the Global Goals Yearbook:
The Global Goals Yearbook is a publication in support of the SDGs and the advancement of corporate sustainability globally. It offers proactive and in-depth information on key sustainability issues and promotes unique and comprehensive knowledge-exchange and learning in the spirit of the SDGs and the Ten Principles of the UN Global Compact. The Global Goals Yearbook helps to advance corporate transparency, promotes the sharing of good business practices, and, perhaps most significantly, gives a strong voice to the regional and global stakeholders that are at the heart of the sustainability agenda.

Global Goals Yearbook 2019
Münster 2019: macondo publishing GmbH, 172 pages
ISBN: 978-3-946284-07-9
Sales Price: 25,00 EUR

This article represents the views of the authors and not necessarily the organizations where they work.