Tobacco Money at the University of California

Tobacco Money at the University of CaliforniaLike many health sciences institutions around the world (1, 2), six academic units throughout the 10-campus University of California system have adopted policies not to accept research money from the tobacco industry. These policies were motivated by concerns that the industry funds academic research-particularly biomedical research (3, 4)-to manipulate the scientific process and "create controversy" about smoking and disease (5-7). Proponents of policies against accepting tobacco money have argued that continued cooperation with the tobacco industry violates the university's fundamental mission of promoting the discovery and dissemination of the truth.

These arguments have not always prevailed; the UCLA School of Public Health decided to continue accepting tobacco industry money, and the UCSF School of Nursing (which has no tobacco money at present) faculty failed to muster the votes deemed necessary for a policy.

This process of discussion, debate, and decision making by University of California faculty will come to a grinding halt if a proposal advocated by the University of California Systemwide Administration and some elements in the Academic Senate (the voice of the faculty) prevails. In July 2004, the highest Senate committee, the Academic Council, endorsed a proposal that, to protect academic freedom, "no unit of the University should be directed (by faculty vote or administrative decision) to refuse to process, accept, or administer a research award based on the source of the funds; and no special encumbrances should be placed on a faculty member's ability to solicit or accept awards based on the source of the funds" (8).

When faculty (including this author) learned of the Academic Council action, we lodged strong protests that fundamental processes of fairness were violated. The Council then sent the resolution to the campuses for discussion before deciding whether to allow it to stand, be rescinded, or be amended. If this policy is implemented, it would be the first time that an upper-level university administration has denied faculty in a health sciences (or any other) school the right to make the decision not to accept tobacco industry money.

Proponents of policies of not accepting tobacco money argue that it is incompatible with the mission of the university to continue to serve the tobacco industry's interests. Far from impinging on academic freedom, we believe that it is necessary to decline tobacco money to protect the integrity of the process and the reputation of the university.

The way that accepting tobacco money compromises the university was starkly illustrated in the case of University of Geneva Professor Ragnar Rylander, who had received industry funding. After an extensive investigation, a faculty committee not only recommended sanctions against Rylander, but also concluded that "The huge mass of tobacco industry documents that has been made public as the result of judgments pronounced by American tribunals against this industry shows that these companies have attempted to manipulate public opinion for decades, and that the targeted recruitment of a large number of scientists has been a privileged instrument of this disinformation plot. The tobacco industry cannot be considered as a credible partner for independent scientific research. The Commission proposes that it shall be forbidden for the members of the University to solicit funding for their research activities or seek consultancies, either directly or indirectly, from the tobacco industry. This measure aims at protecting the integrity of its scientists" (9). The president of the university quickly accepted this recommendation (10).

The leaders at the University of California are taking precisely the opposite perspective; they would outlaw any consideration of the tobacco industry's record when deciding whether or not to accept its money. Academic freedom, they argue, demands that individual faculty not be precluded from accepting money from a source simply because it is "unpopular" or "politically incorrect."

Most of the behind-closed-doors discussion, however, has not been so lofty. It is all about "slippery slopes" and the pharmaceutical industry: "Yes, the tobacco industry is bad and you are probably right about how it has expropriated the university's reputation, but if we make a decision not to accept tobacco money, what if someone starts raising questions about the drug companies?"

There are similarities between some of the issues involving the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries. Both have supported research and researchers who find results that serve their economic interests (11-13). The news is filled with examples of real or potential conflicts of interest involving professors and drug companies (14). As with tobacco, the growing controversy between the involvement of academic and NIH-funded researchers with pharmaceutical companies is threatening to undermine public confidence in universities.

However, important differences exist between how the drug and tobacco companies use universities. These differences need careful consideration. First, there are concerns that drug companies may want to suppress negative findings about their drugs. University policies forbidding "gag clauses" in contracts or grants could, at least in principle, protect the right of faculty to publish and discuss negative results that a drug company would rather bury. The tobacco companies, in contrast, want the work of carefully selected investigators and areas of investigation published as part of their effort to create confusion or controversy about emerging or established science or serve their needs in public policy debates or litigation (5). Thus, university policies protecting the right to publish are of no value in preventing undisclosed tobacco industry involvement in scientific papers.

Second, in the long run, it is in the interest of the drug companies to get the science right. It is easier to bring a drug to market and keep it on the market if it actually works. Even though the drug companies may seek to suppress negative results, in the end they need products that work and such products can only be developed if the underlying scientific research is sound. The tobacco companies, in contrast, are faced with an overwhelming case that smoking and secondhand smoke are dangerous. They have always worked to undermine this consensus, often supporting research selected by lawyers and public relations experts rather than scientists (5, 15).

These differences, however, do not mean that there are not real issues with the university's relationship with the pharmaceutical industry. Universities need to be vigilant about protecting the free right of publication. Equally important, universities need to implement strong conflict of interest standards that forbid faculty from having any financial interest in any drug company that is supporting their research. Maintaining both the reality and appearance of a lack of conflict of interest is crucial not only for the integrity of the individual faculty member, but also of the faculty as a whole.

Rather than invoking the "slippery slope" related to the issues raised by funding from the pharmaceutical industry as a justification for forbidding departments, schools, and other units from acting to protect the integrity of their units from the tobacco industry, we need to resolve these issues in a way that protects the fundamental values, mission, and reputation of the university. Failing to address the related, but distinct, issues that tobacco and pharmaceutics raise-or trying to define the problem away by policy-as is being done by the University of California administration, will only reduce the authority of the university and the public's willingness to support and protect it as a neutral arbiter of truth. Protecting the university's role in pursuing the truth is, after all, the justification for providing academic freedom. Demonstrating a willingness to engage these issues and act responsibly, including declining tobacco industry money, is necessary to protect academic freedom.

Acknowledgment: The author thanks Ruth Malone and Jerimiah Mock for their comments on a draft of this manuscript.


1. Cohen J. Universities and tobacco money. BMJ 2001;323:1-2.

2. Schubert C. Tobacco money sparks squabble at California universities. Nat Med 2005;11:106.

3. Wander N, Malone RE. Selling off or selling out? Medical schools and ethical leadership in tobacco stock divestment. Acad Med 2004;79:1017-1026.

4. Hirschorn N, Bialous S, Shatenstein S. Philip Morris' new scientific initiative. Tab Control 2001;10:247-252.

5. Glantz SA, Barnes DE, Bero L, Hanauer P, Slade J. The cigarette papers. Berkeley: University of California Press; 1996.

6. Ong EK, Glantz SA. Constructing "sound science" and "good epidemiology": tobacco, lawyers, and public relations firms. Am J Public Health 2001;91:1749-1757.


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