A tainted university.
A tainted university.
et Nottingham University has done just that. So I have resigned from my unpaid and part-time post as professor of medical journalism in the university.
I’m not against universities becoming closer to business. It gives them extra sources of revenue and independence from the state. Closer interaction with industry may also help counter the British prob lem of making great innovations but failing to bring them to market. But as universities become closer to business they must avoid being used and corrupted. They must be smarter in their interactions.
What does British American Tobacco want for the £3.8m it has given to Nottingham? The sum may be paltry, but the company has a duty to its shareholders to make sure it uses its money wisely. It wants respectability, to dissociate itself from dealers in drugs that happen to be illegal even if no more harmful than tobacco. It wants friends in high places, and BAT may already think it has got value for money as its listens to Sir Colin Campbell, vice chancellor of the university, argue the industry’s case in public.
The company would probably also like to influence the work of the centre for corporate responsibility. An excellent study for the centre to undertake would be into the corporate responsibility of BAT. The study would reveal, I suggest, corporate irresponsibility on a Mephistophelean scale.
But will the centre undertake such a study? I’ll be surprised – but impressed – if it does. It would be so unEnglish and so impolite. How could Sir Colin dine with his new friends (who include Kenneth Clarke) after such a study had been published? Despite all the rhetoric about academic freedom, BAT has bought off a potential critic.
The villainy of the tobacco industry goes back to Walter Raleigh, but it became the world champion of corporate irresponsibility only in the 1960s. Remarkably, it wasn’t until then that the dangers of tobacco began to become clear. Richard Doll, who has done more than anybody else to make the case against tobacco, thought that the epidemic of lung cancer that was beginning was probably caused by traffic pollution.
Imagine the plight of the tobacco companies when they discovered in the 1960s that their product was killing millions. What would companies that were interested in corporate responsibility do? They might have put their heads in the sand, said that their trade was legal, observed that people have a choice, stated their duty to their shareholders and carried on. Alternatively, they might – as has BP Amoco when faced with the problems of environmental destruction – accepted the reality of the evidence, recognised their social responsibility, and reoriented the whole business.
What the industry actually did was worse than putting its head in the sand. It refused to accept the evidence. You can still hear tobacco company executives talk about “the controversy” over the harmful effects of tobacco.
But there is no controversy. Tobacco is on track to kill 1bn people in the 21st century, 10 times as many as in the 20th century. This is partly because many of those who smoked in the 20th century will die this century and mainly because tobacco companies are promoting their lethal product so successfully in the developing world, where most people live.
Worse than denying the evidence, the tobacco companies systematically and often covertly tried to undermine the science that was causing its problems. Academics around the world have been bought and given the resources to create confusion. Usually the links of these academics were not apparent. The industry infiltrated universities, medical journals, newspapers and even the World Health Organisation.
In the 1980s the industry created the Health Promotion Research Fund, chaired by a professor of medicine. In exchange the government continued with a voluntary code on tobacco advertising. In its initial manifestation the fund would not support any research that involved looking at the harmful effects of tobacco. This would be like researching into deaths in war without being allowed to consider guns.
Recognising that it was killing its customers and that the political tide was flowing against it in the developed world, the industry has set about creating “new addicts”. Some are children in the developed world, but most are poor people in the developing world. Tobacco will soon kill more than infection and malnutrition combined, which is why the traditionally timid WHO is becoming more active in the battle against tobacco.
So the industry needs all the friends it can buy, and where better to start than with an international centre for corporate responsibility in a British university? Nottingham University is being used and besmirched.