British American Tobacco Company: Business Ethics the Essay

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British American Tobacco Company: Business Ethics

The British American Tobacco company is a multinational company with over 200 brands that they have developed under the guidance; the company is staggeringly successful, selling 694 billion cigarettes in 2012 ( The worldwide company sees itself, and many would argue, rightfully so, as a powerful forces that has stimulated economies all over the globe in lasting and measurable ways: in 2012, the company's "subsidiaries enabled governments worldwide to gather more than £30 billion in duty, excise and sales taxes on our products, more than seven times the Group's profit after tax" ( Being a stimulus to the economy and a pillar of economic stability is something that company prides itself on: British American Tobacco has 44 factories in 39 countries, employing 55,000 people worldwide in a massive multicultural workforce (

The company claims that it gives each local factory a tremendous amount of autonomy and responsibility for its operations, with all decisions made with interest and thought to all local stakeholders of each respective business within a framework of principles, standards of strategies (

Corporate responsibility is a fascinating subject when it comes to any tobacco company, given the health hazards that tobacco products inherently pose to one's health. Interestingly enough, the British American Tobacco company acknowledges the issues with their products and the health of their consumers almost immediately on their website, "We believe that because our products pose risks to health, it is all the more important that our business is managed responsibly. Responsibility is integral to our strategy and through dialogue with our stakeholders, we are working to pursue our commercial objectives in ways consistent with changing expectations of a modern tobacco business" ( While this is a lofty assertion, it's still important to define what an "ethical business practice" particularly as it might apply to a tobacco company.


First of all it's important to define "ethics" independent of business. Ethics refers to the "critical, structured examination of how we should behave -- in particular, how we should constrain the pursuit of self-interest when our actions affect others" (MacDonald, 2010). Fundamentally, this means behaving in a way that is in reference to some moral code, and seeing one's actions in the greater scope of impacting others in direct and indirect ways. "Business Ethics' can be defined as the critical, structured examination of how people & institutions should behave in the world of commerce. In particular, it involves examining appropriate constraints on the pursuit of self-interest, or (for firms) profits, when the actions of individuals or firms affects others" (MacDonald, 2010). The viewpoint of business ethics looks at the actions of a company as a massive, multi-faceted creature and sees all the actions and decisions made by this creature as having strong ethical consequences for societies, individuals and the environment. The business ethics and ethical compass need to be pervasive, guiding the company like a lighthouse (Robins & Dowson, 2012).

While business ethics are made up of the ethical actions of companies in the world of commerce with respect to how actions impact others and the environment, that definition still just skims the surface. Fundamentally, business ethics is made up of the following components.

The first aspect of business ethics is influenced by the corporate culture; the corporate culture is made up of fundamental values, beliefs and preferred approaches to dealing with typical and unique business scenarios (McQuerrey, 2013). Employees need to not only understand and embody a given company's values when it comes to the corporate culture, but they need to feel that the corporation is serious about those values and beliefs, that they're not merely sound-bites filled with hot air. The values and beliefs of a corporation are so important and these same values need to be the ones which guide the company at large and the individual employees when they're faced with a dilemma.

Another aspect of business ethics are how the company values are conveyed. Managers are some of the most powerful people in making sure the company values stay in the forefront of the minds of all employees and that these values are upheld and "Managers define ethical business behavior in their workplaces by explaining to employees how behavior and action affects the business' overall mission. An example is demonstrating the link between respectful workplace relationships and low turnover, or lenient return policies and increased customer satisfaction surveys" (McQuerrey, 2013). This is indeed something that managers need to do as part of helping to define the corporate values and the greater picture of business ethics: they need to constantly relate these concepts to real-time examples for employees so that these concepts aren't just ideas, but actions which can be manifested in clear, accessible ways (Robins & Dowson, 2012). Other components which make up business ethics are things like creating an ethical workplace, fair treatment of all employees, and dealing with the unethical business values of other companies (McQuerrey, 2013).

Defining business ethics in this manner is important because this multi-dimensional approach helps to illustrate all the dynamics at work when it comes to something so nuanced and so complex. Business ethics are more than just a sense of terminology, but a range of interlocking processes (Robins & Dowson, 2012).

Unethical Practice

One could argue that the British American Tobacco company is unethical by nature in the sense that they sell products which are known to have serious and sometimes fatal health risks to human beings. However, to get more specific, one unethical practice that the company has been accused of is targeting children as future consumers of cigarettes. For example, in 2007 a lawsuit was filed against the British American Tobacco Company along with several others, "Another $1.04 billion is requested as a fine for the companies' actions. The Attorney General's office filed the case in reaction to an advertising and marketing campaign allegedly targeting Nigerian youth" (Irin, 2007). This is particularly disturbing since this was not the first time that the company had been accused of working to attract child smokers. In 2000, "A BBC investigation has found that a British tobacco company is actively targeting young people and teenagers in Africa. Cigarettes are being handed out free at youth events specially organised by tobacco firms during school holidays. The companies insist they only give the samples to adult smokers, but there's evidence their own rules are not being followed. The investigation is a further blow to an industry already dogged by accusations of dirty tricks and dubious marketing techniques, particularly in developing countries" (BBC, 2000). These findings are so insidious because the British American Tobacco company is essentially targeting youths in some of the poorest countries in the world, countries that simply cannot afford to pay for the health costs required in order to take care of the diseases that nearly half of all cigarette consumers after becoming addicted to cigarettes. Giving out cigarettes to children and getting kids addicted to this lethal substance is something which is an incredibly black and white issue: it's a move riddled by evil. Furthermore, by targeting kids in some of the poorest countries of the world means that these kids aren't in school where the same anti-smoking educational programs are in place; kids just aren't educated in the same way or with the same vigor about the dangers of smoking. Thus, children in these poorer countries are simply more vulnerable targets; tobacco companies like British American are well aware of this and prey on these kids. This is unacceptable. Furthermore, preying on youth in poor countries means that these kids and young adults don't have the same amount of spending money as those in other countries. This means that cigarettes will be purchased at the expense of food, new shoes or school supplies. By getting kids addicted at a younger age, the British American tobacco company is essentially guaranteeing that they'll have a lower quality of life.

If one were to look at this tactic in terms of virtue ethics, there's absolutely no excuse for this behavior and the behavior looks monstrous. Virtue ethics is a complex and multi-faceted ethical theory, but it is one which proclaims that character is everything essentially. "A virtue such as honesty or generosity is not just a tendency to do what is honest or generous, nor is it to be helpfully specified as a "desirable" or "morally valuable" character trait. It is, indeed a character trait -- that is, a disposition which is well entrenched in its possessor…" ( When it comes to character, virtuous traits go hand in hand with other actions such as emotions and emotional reactions, values, desires, opinions, interests and sensibilities -- fundamentally, a virtue goes in having a type of complex mindset ( One of the most important parts of this mindset has to do with the complete acceptance of a range of ideas as reasons for a particular action ( It's far too oversimplified to say that an honest person is someone…

Sources Used in Document:

References (n.d.). Homepage. Retrieved from


BBC. (2000, September 20). Uk tobacco firm targets african youth. Retrieved from

Irin. (2007, November 9). Nigeria: Govt hits tobacco companies with whopping law suit.

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