Intended for healthcare professionals

News Roundup [abridged Versions Appear In The Paper Journal]

Row over Nottingham tobacco cash deepens

BMJ 2001; 322 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.322.7297.1270/b (Published 26 May 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;322:1270

Indefensible - Smoking and its mountain of human mortality

Sir,

"The university has also lost a team of cancer researchers led by
Professor David Thurston, who has resigned from his post as professor of
experimental cancer chemotherapy and director of the Gene Targeted Drug
Design Research Group. Professor Thurston has relocated his whole team to
the London School of Pharmacy. It is understood that Nottingham's decision
to accept the funding was a factor in his departure.

"Writing in the Guardian earlier this week, Dr Smith said: "It is
absurd that a university run by academics, not surrealists, should take
money from an industry that has killed 100m people and behaved more
unethically than any other."

"Students at the university have also protested at the decision to
accept BAT's money. John Rause, the winner of Nottingham University’s
student of the year award, handed back his prize in protest at the
donation.

"A spokesman for the university said that the decision to accept the
money had been ratified by the governing council and the senate." [1]

Students protesting and handing back hard-won awards, whole research
teams resigning and being relocated, Professor Smith resigning - these
events do not inspire much trust in this university and it is clear that
its foolish and heedless actions ensure its justified status as a Pariah
in the academic world for a long time to come. It sounds like the entire
Senate and governing council of Nottingham University ought to resign as
well; or better still, be dismissed.

Nottingham has been for many years a cigarette manufacturing city,
home of John Players and now BAT. It seems to me that the university has
done a backroom deal with BAT in order to be seen to be 'looking after the
town' by protecting local jobs. I am not aware that this point has been
brought to the fore.

Reading a recent book review, I was surprised to read some of the
hard data about the effects of smoking, which I BMJ readers might also
find very interesting.

"Given the furore over a train crash that kills a score of
passengers…in Britain every year…[tobacco] causes as many premature deaths
as the crash of 300 fully laden jumbo jets. Yet tobacco has seen off many
attacks." [2]

That is just about a jumbo jet full of people crashing every day,
every year. Such a hideous mountain of human mortality, though
preventable, does not seem to bother the tobacco industry too much, or
seemingly, successive UK governments.

"Smoking in adults peaked in 1948, when no fewer than 82% of men and
41% of women were regular smokers…by 1990, only 38% of men and 41% of
women were still smoking." [2]

This seems to indicate that although men seem to be getting the
message, women clearly are not! "Few people…appreciate how big the overall
risk is: half of all current smokers will die as a result of their habit."
[3]

What about politicians, doctors and BMJ staff smoking?

"Some health ministers have been [big smokers]…in 1956 Robert Turton
answered questions after being photographed smoking outside Parliament,
Kenneth Robinson was a heavy smoker, and more recently Kenneth Clarke has
extolled the cigar…when I started as assistant editor in 1965 [15 years
after it had published the lung cancer link] four out of six of the BMJ
medical editorial staff still smoked [as did those of the Lancet], and
until the late 1970s BMA committee meetings were enveloped in clouds of
cigarette smoke." [3]

But the cruellest aspect is that "we need a freedom of information
act for the details of the collusion between manufacturers and the
Treasury…but the prolonged tolerance of advertising and sponsorship says
much." [3] Too much tolerance, collusion and deceit for too long.

Not just universities, but also governments will have to be much
tougher on the tobacco industry in order to reduce this unacceptable
mountain of human deaths. Would the airplane companies be allowed to just
keep flying their planes if one crashed every single day of the year? The
outrage would ground all planes in days. Sadly, the same sentiments do not
seem to apply to cigarettes.

"In 1996, Peto et al. [Peto R, Lopez AD, Boreham J Thun M, Heath C,
Doll R. Mortality from smoking worldwide. British Medical Bulletin 1996;
52: 12-21] estimated that unless current trends changed, some 30-40% of
the 2.3 billion children and teenagers in the world would become smokers
in early adult life (1). Unless action is taken now, about 250 million of
these future smokers will be killed by smoking." [4]

In another recent email [5] Michael Innis says:

"There are worse hazards to which children can be exposed than
smoking and enlightened parenting may provide a service the tobacco
company and the University could be proud of." [5]

Maybe in the light of the above, he might wish to re-think that
comment, innocently made though it probably was. Indeed, when measured in
mortality terms, then it seems that smoking is one of the most dangerous
things a child can be exposed to. One labours hard to see how any
university can reap a single molecule of pride from such an association.

Sources

[1] BMJ 2001;322:1270 (26 May), News roundup, Row over Nottingham
tobacco cash deepens, Mark Hunter Leeds
http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/322/7297/1270/b

[2] Matthew Hilton, Smoking in British Popular Culture 1800-200,
Manchester University Press, 2000, 284 pages, £15.99, reviewed in Soc.
Hist. Med. 14.1, April 2001, by Stephen Lock, 146

[3] ibid., 147

[4] http://factsheets.globalink.org/en/youth.shtml

[5] BMJ letter, Enlightened Parenting, Michael Innis, 2 July 2001
http://www.bmj.com/cgi/eletters/322/7302/1564#EL3

Competing interests: No competing interests

10 July 2001
Peter Morrell
Hon Research Associate, History of Medicine
Staffordshire University, UK