As part of its strategy to avert tobacco stock divestment by the country’s top medical schools, Philip Morris exploited institutional fears of losing research funding, according to a new report by UCSF School of Nursing researchers.
In an article in the November issue of Academic Medicine, the journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges, the researchers document the tobacco company response to two cases of threatened university divestment as part of an overall analysis of how the company worked to preserve its financial ties with academic medicine.
“Tobacco stock divestment and tobacco industry research funding are two sides of the same coin,” said Ruth Malone, RN, PhD, principal investigator and senior author of the report, who is an associate professor in the School of Nursing.
“Funding research is a way the industry tries to buy legitimacy. There are contradictions in selling off tobacco stocks while continuing to take money derived from tobacco profits,” she added.
Malone and Nathaniel Wander, PhD, research associate and first author, used previously secret internal tobacco industry documents as resources. Most of the papers have become available through litigation and now are available at the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library of UCSF.
In their analysis, the researchers show how Philip Morris used similar arguments to oppose divestment at both Johns Hopkins University and Yale University. While the company emphasized its financial contributions to the universities—ranging from personal philanthropic donations to endowed chairs and research monies—it also made suggestions for investing the universities’ tobacco stock profits. Both universities were “invited” to direct profits into research coordinated with the industry’s discredited and now-abolished Center for Tobacco Research, they found.
According to Wander, “PM wanted to be seen to contribute to medical research to counter the image of harm caused by its cigarettes. It used a combination of carrots and sticks—alternately offering or threatening the loss of research funding—to avoid a public rejection by the medical schools. Johns Hopkins divested; Yale did not.”
However, in both cases, Philip Morris succeeded in minimizing the impact of divestment activities: in the first, by muting the consequences of a divestment, and in the second, by convincing university decision-makers to recommend against tobacco stock divestment.
Tobacco products contribute to 440,000 premature deaths in the U.S. annually, and if academic medical centers genuinely regard protection of the public’s health as a primary mission, divestment from tobacco holdings is essential, the researchers write.
Divestment by health and social welfare organizations from the tobacco industry began in the early 1980s. The American Medical Association divested its tobacco holdings in 1986 and in 1987 resolved to urge medical schools and their parent universities to do the same. Some schools divested, and others did not, for reasons rarely made public, the researchers note.
The researchers found that as of August 2004, at least five of the 12 top-ranked medical schools in the country are based at universities that apparently have not divested from tobacco stock.
The University of California divested its holdings in 2001, and recently, faculty at several UC campuses have voted in favor of policies against acceptance of tobacco industry funding for research, according to Malone.
The research was funded by the California Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program and the National Cancer Institute. The full report, titled “Selling Off or Selling Out? Medical Schools and Ethical Leadership in Tobacco Stock Divestment,” will be will be available online beginning October 25 after October 25 at Academic Medicine