Stub this bad idea out now

May 10, 1996

A fracas is developing at the University of Cambridge over plans to accept tobacco industry money to found a new chair. The University of Cambridge is considering a proposal to accept a donation of Pounds 1.5 million from British American Tobacco, now known as BAT Industries plc, to endow a professorship of international relations, to be named after the retiring chairman of BAT, Sir Patrick Sheehy.

Substantial funds have been identified from the university and other sources to support additional academic appointments and scholarships that will carry the name of BAT Industries plc. The scholarships are mainly to support students from the third world to come to Cambridge for postgraduate studies in international relations.

Publication of the proposal in the University Reporter was greeted with incredulity and outrage. Large numbers of people from outside the university have written to the vice chancellor expressing their dismay. Many universities must adopt unconventional approaches to fund new developments, even on occasion to remain solvent. The point at which collaboration with industry becomes dubious is not easy to place, but the fine detail is irrelevant. The BAT proposal is totally unacceptable.

The reasons follow two main lines. The first relate to the adverse health effects of tobacco. Cigarette smoking is one of the main causes of death and ill health, with some three million deaths a year due to tobacco. It is highly addictive. If present smoking patterns persist, ten million deaths a year will be caused by tobacco in 30 years' time. In developed countries, public recognition of the health risks associated with smoking has led to a major change in attitudes. In the United Kingdom the proportion of adult males who smoke has fallen from over 80 per cent to less than 30 per cent.

The tobacco industry has reacted to this threat to the market by targeting the third world, and more recently the former socialist countries in central and eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. This they have done to great effect, and none with more success than BAT. Despite declining sales in the West and with major and increasing expenditures fighting litigation in the United States, BAT's total trading profit from tobacco increased by over 50 per cent in the five years to 1995, to a total of Pounds 1.5 billion. Last week it announced first-quarter profits for 1996 up by a further 10 per cent, driven by increasing sales in China, India, Pakistan, Poland and Ukraine. It is achieving market dominance in Uzbekistan and other central Asian countries of the former Soviet Union. Sales in Latin America and the Caribbean account for over a quarter of total sales. One can predict, almost with the accuracy of prediction in astronomy, that if BAT's success continues, many millions in these countries will die prematurely of tobacco-induced disease.

BAT knows this full well. These are the countries from which students are expected to come to Cambridge supported by BAT Industries plc scholarships. Many of these students will be part of the next generation of leaders on their return home - a phalanx of influential leaders formed in Cambridge, indebted to BAT. For Cambridge to accept BAT support for a chair in international relations, when BAT's international activities knowingly will reap a massive harvest of disease, is distasteful. This misjudgement is seriously compounded by the university providing funds for scholarships to the third world bearing the name of British American Tobacco.

The second set of reasons for rejecting the proposal refers to academic integrity. Few industrial concerns with which universities work will have had the longlasting and unrelieved record of self deception, dissimulation and deceit of the tobacco industry. The central responsibility of the university is to nurture a spirit of intellectual honesty and of respect for the truth. BAT, through its American subsidiary Brown and Williamson, has reportedly known for more than three decades of the addictive nature of nicotine and that tobacco causes disease experimentally. This data has not been publicised and vast resources deployed to create and sustain false associations between youthful healthiness and smoking. Yet this is the organisation the name of which Cambridge University proposes to attach to its scholarships for students from the third world.

If this proposal is adopted, the reputation of the University of Cambridge will be deeply tainted. British universities are still highly esteemed for their intellectual independence and moral integrity, both of which the BAT deal would be perceived to compromise. Fortunately, the University of Cambridge is still a democracy. Management can propose, but the academic community will decide. Cambridge may well need a chair in international relations, but the BAT proposal is excessive in its cost to the university's good name.

Professor Nick Day is director of the Institute of Public Health, Department of Community Medicine, Cambridge.

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