Funding dilemma: should charities take donations from tobacco firms?

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China first became a party to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2003, with the relevant legislation coming into force across the country in 2006. Article 13 of the convention bans the promotion of tobacco products and the acceptance of sponsorship from tobacco firms. However, according to the Shanda Network, a recent survey shows that more than 80 percent of charities in China are unaware that donations from tobacco firms are prohibited.

Addressing the situation, Liu Youping, executive deputy secretary-general of China Charity Federation, gave a recent speech at a meeting of social organisations involved in cutting tobacco usage. He said that charities should be actively involved in anti-smoking campaigns and that they should avoid accepting donations from tobacco companies.

Before the Charity Law, the Public Welfare Donation Law passed in 1999 did not include any restrictions on donations from tobacco firms. But things began to change when China signed the FCTC in 2003. Although media coverage of tobacco companies donating to schools or financially supporting poverty alleviation and environmental protection programmes continued to appear, tobacco companies also at times faced criticism from academics and the wider public, as well as receiving some negative press attention.

At present, there are 182 parties to the convention and China’s enforcement of the FCTC demonstrates the country’s commitment to the protocol. Cities such as Beijing, Shenzhen and Shanghai have already published regulations to restrict smoking in public places.

During the public consultation period for the first Charity Law, the China Tobacco Control Association called for bans on any form of donations or sponsorships by tobacco firms. Yet when the Charity Law was passed the following year, instead of instituting a comprehensive ban, it only stipulated that “No organisation or individual may use charitable donations to promote tobacco products in violation of the law, or use charitable donations to promote products and matters prohibited by law in any way”.

Liu Youping believes that the conflict between policies to cut rates of smoking and tobacco companies’ charitable actions partially reveals the difficult choices such businesses and charities make when trying to fulfill their social responsibilities. While modern tobacco companies mostly contribute to society by paying taxes, their profits are ultimately gained at the expense of people’s health. Charities, on the other hand, make their contributions through campaigns and by providing social services which, in return, require funds from other sectors. The reality is many for-profit companies have earned their reputations through philanthropic actions. However, when tobacco companies try to do the same thing, it can cause suspicion to fall on the charity sector. Therefore, Liu suggested it is more appropriate for tobacco firms to meet their corporate social responsibilities (CSR) by paying more taxes instead of directly funding charitable organisations.

Moreover, the amended Charity Law in fact compels charities to not engage in any behaviour that harms public interests, including public health. So when charities offer services that benefit the public on the one hand, and accept donations from tobacco companies on the other –– it creates an interesting paradox.

In the long run, Liu wants the charity sector to reject donations from the tobacco industry to avoid giving the industry an acceptable face. He appealed for the Charity Law to be amended to make it illegal for charities to accept donations or sponsorship deals from tobacco companies, something that has gained widespread support. “If charities continue to take funding from tobacco companies, public attitudes towards the charity sector are likely to deteriorate,” said Liu.