Voluntary codes

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This article is part of the Tobacco portal on Sourcewatch funded from 2006 - 2009 by the American Legacy Foundation.

Voluntary code refers to marketing, advertising, promotional, labor or environmental codes of conduct that companies and industries adopt, purportedly to restrict their corporate behavior that the public considers harmful or damaging. Corporations and industries finalize these "codes" themselves, without public input, and they are supposed to be self-enforced. Corporations and industries typically enact voluntary codes when they are faced with public efforts to tax or regulate some harmful aspect of their business.

Examples of voluntary codes include alcohol manufacturers' elective adoption of stricter rules to keep promotional messages away from young people after public attention was drawn to the problem of binge drinking by youth.[1]

After attention was drawn to the harmful effects on youth of smoking in the movies Philip Morris vowed not to place their products in movies or TV shows "intended for a general audience." When public attention was drawn to the problem of toy, footwear and apparel companies using sweatshops overseas, the apparel, footwear and toy companies also adopted voluntary codes ostensibly to address human rights and labor issues like limiting sweatshop activities.[2] Voluntary codes are usually adopted in response to a major legal or regulatory threats against an industry.[3]

Such voluntary codes create an illusion of responsible behavior by the industry, while minimally hampering its marketing activities and at the same time staving off government legislation to regulate their behavior.[4]

As trade has become more global and corporations have become more multinational, countries started discovering that they have little recourse to curb corporations' harmful or abusive activities. As public clamor to regulate multinationals has grown, companies have increasingly responded by adopting "voluntary codes of conduct."

Tobacco industry documents

Tobacco industry documents explain the real purposes that often underlie a company's adoption of voluntary codes of conduct.

For example, an undated, eight-page strategy document from British American Tobacco (BAT) states BAT's intent to enact a voluntary code of conduct to "demonstrate responsibility" to policymakers and "enable government to claim that they 'have done something' to address a negative corporate behavior ... which is what they need in answer to pressure groups."[5]

A 1991 Philip Morris Corporate Affairs Europe (PM) internal presentation proposes enacting a voluntary code of conduct to avoid regulation, stating, "A first step [to fighting proposed advertising restrictions in Poland] was a meeting between PM management and the [Polish] Minister of Agriculture, after which the latter became an active supporter of a voluntary code of conduct as a viable alternative to stringent restrictions ... "[6]

Articles and resources

Related SourceWatch articles


  1. Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. Code Of Responsible Practices for Beverage Alcohol Advertising and Marketing, accessed August 11, 2009
  2. Philip Morris Company Announcement March 1, 2006. Web site, accessed July 1, 2008
  3. Andrew Adam Newman, New York Times and The Financial Express Liquor maker favours voluntary code Posted online May 14, 2007
  4. Yussuf Saloojee, Ross Hammond, World Health Organization Fatal Deception: The tobacco industry’s “new” global standards for tobacco marketing Report. 2001. 22 pp.
  5. Author unknown Smoking and Health Issues Conference Chelwood 5-8 November, 1979 Team D Syndicate Problem and Answer Advertising and Other Restrictions Bates No. 301097858-301097865
  6. Philip Morris Untitled Presentation 35 pp. 1991. Bates No. 2500120503/0537

External resources

External articles

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