Associations between Universities and the Tobacco Industry: What Institutional Policies Limit These Associations?

By Thomson, George | Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, November 2005 | Go to article overview

Associations between Universities and the Tobacco Industry: What Institutional Policies Limit These Associations?


Thomson, George, Social Policy Journal of New Zealand


Abstract

This paper examines the extent of associations between the tobacco industry and New Zealand universities, and the institutional mechanisms that have been used to limit such associations. Tobacco industry documents were searched for associations between New Zealand universities and the tobacco industry. The stratagems used by New Zealand universities, funders, professional societies and government to limit such associations were analysed, using written requests, website surveys and interviews. Philip Morris invested at least US$790,000 into research at the University of Auckland during 1988-1996, and other associations between tobacco companies and New Zealand universities have continued until at least 2004. There are still few formal policies in New Zealand to prevent such associations. In contrast, a number of prominent Australian universities formally limit their associations with the tobacco industry. If the evidence of harm to the public interest from associations with the tobacco industry is accepted, then, despite the risk to academic freedom, formal policies to address such associations may be warranted. To be most effective, policies by research institutions and funders on tobacco industry associations should be formal and explicit, and also need to be comprehensive and effectively implemented.

INTRODUCTION

This study explores the institutional mechanisms that have been used to limit associations between the tobacco industry and New Zealand universities. Our research is premised on the view that such associations are potentially unsafe. A substantial literature from 1982 has found dangers to public health and to the public interest from associations between universities and the tobacco industry ("Smoking still kills" 1982, Fischer and Richards 1986, Pierce 1986, Shaw 1986).

The potential dangers include giving respectability to the industry, the tendency to remain silent about industry behaviour and tobacco harm, the active perversion of research processes by the industry, and the diversion of public, scientific and government attention from tobacco harm ("Smoking still kills" 1982, Wolinsky 1985, Fischer and Richards 1986, Pierce 1986, Shaw 1986, Chapman 1987, Warner 1991, Cohen et al. 1999, Bitton et al. 2005, Garne et al. 2005). The documented perversions by tobacco companies--individually or collectively--of the pursuit of truth include the covert control of academic journals (Bitton et al. 2005, Garne et al. 2005), the manipulation of research processes and arenas (Barnes and Bero 1998, Ong and Glantz 2000, 2001, Tong et al. 2005), the suppression of results (Diethelm et al. 2005), and the attempted corruption of research and health organisations (Zeltner et al. 2000, Yach and Bialous 2001).

One of the most obvious potential dangers of association has been the implied support of an industry that has denied and deceived about the harm from its products. Since 1964 or before, suggestions that there was a scientific "controversy" as to whether or not this harm existed have been very largely driven by the tobacco industry (Doll 1998, Hill et al. 2003, Parascandola 2004, Proctor 2004, Talley et al. 2004).

The literature on such dangers is now supported by wider research that indicates adverse consequences from financial and other associations between researchers and the commercial funders of research whose activities are related to the research area. These consequences can include lower-quality, fewer and more biased publications (DeAngelis 2000, Lexchin et al. 2003). There appears to be no immediately obvious reason why these dangers should not apply to New Zealand. Tobacco industry associations with universities occur in the context of growing concerns about the conflicts involved in business-research links (Cho et al. 2000, Morgan et al. 2000, Cech and Leonard 2001).

Worldwide, universities have been slowly developing defences against the perceived dangers to the public interest from associations with the tobacco industry.

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