Tobacco funding for academics

BMJ 1996; 312 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.312.7033.721 (Published 23 March 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;312:721
  1. Douglas Carnall
  1. Editorial registrar BMJ, London WC1H 9JR

    A blatant advertising ploy that threatens academic freedom

    Most people would agree that Cambridge University would be ill advised to launder money for a Colombian cocaine cartel. While the pounds sterling1.5 million that the university proposes to accept from BAT (British American Tobacco) Industries to fund a new chair in international relations may be legal, it is hard to make a moral distinction between the tobacco industry and the drug cartels.1 Both supply and promote an addictive substance with the intention of maximising their profits, in spite of the resultant human suffering.

    Selling tobacco is certainly profitable: BAT Industries' profits went up 56% to a record pounds sterling1.56 billion in 1995. Most of this growth came from selling 100 billion more cigarettes to people in developing countries than it had in 1994.2 This success means that the company is awash with money, and it has seemed fitting—and no doubt tax efficient—to the company's board to honour its recently retired chairman by establishing the Sir Patrick Sheehy professorship of international relations.3 4 Sir Patrick's early successes were as Nigerian regional sales manager of British American Tobacco—where rising cigarette sales through the 1950s and 60s5 led to his promotion to chairman of its tobacco division and eventually to chairman of the board in 1982.

    If Cambridge University accepts BAT Industries' endowment, it gives the company not only the respectability that comes with an Oxbridge chair but the opportunity to influence students, academics, and policy makers.6 The tobacco industry has strong interests in international policy, which would open many potential conflicts of interest between tobacco funded scholars of international affairs and their multinational paymaster. If the academic who is appointed imagines that he or she is “independent” of such worldly considerations, the influence is, paradoxically, likely to be all the more insidious.

    The values of academic life—truth, openness, and integrity—do not mix easily with those of the tobacco industry. For example, the Brown and Wilson Tobacco Corporation, a BAT Industries subsidiary, has been shown to have concealed and distorted research findings showing the harmful and addictive nature of tobacco over a 30 year period.7 Furthermore, after the leaked documents were archived in the University of California's San Francisco library, the company not only attempted to remove them but sought the names of those who had accessed them and staked out the archive with private investigators, intimidating library staff.7 Such behaviour is, to say the least, against the spirit of open academic inquiry, yet the board of Cambridge University proposes to invite a senior company member to take part in the process of selecting both the professor and research fellows.3

    The university's motivation is clear. Although it is not noted for its poverty, the latest round of education cuts have hit Cambridge University hard. In this financial climate, the temptation to accept the offer must be strong, particularly if it can be presented as honouring Sir Patrick Sheehy personally while downplaying BAT Industries' contribution.

    When Sir Patrick's illustrious career began in the early 1950s, smoking cigarettes was not known to be injurious to health. Sadly, the only conclusion that hindsight allows is that he has devoted an entire career to organising a world supply of a product that kills millions. Are the finances of Cambridge University really so desperate that it will succumb to one of the more audacious tobacco advertising ploys attempted in recent years?


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