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UK: university's tobacco stain won't go away

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More news from Tobacco University, as the once esteemed institution in Nottingham, in the midlands of England, tends to be known nowadays. Readers will recall that last May, the university accepted a £3.8 million (US$5.3 million) donation from BAT, to fund an International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility (Tobacco Control 2001;10:1–2). The vice chancellor and his colleagues probably thought that the fury let loose against them in the press, not just from health agencies, but from many senior academics, would soon die down. The Cancer Research Campaign (CRC), a major sponsor of research at Nottingham and pioneer of a code of practice on tobacco funding of research, adopted by many universities and other research institutions in the UK and elsewhere, was prominent among the critics. Give it a week or two, the Nottingham officials must have reassured themselves, and people will turn their attention to something else. The university could then return to full enjoyment of the fruits of a BAT's public relations ploy of quite breathtaking cynicism.

Some of the students who demonstrated against the decision of Nottingham university to accept funding from BAT, by painting red patches on their faces and picketing the university's annual open day, which they renamed “Red Face Day”.

This might be possible with certain other funding considered “controversial” (to use the tobacco industry's own, coy description), such as money from the oil, nuclear or armaments industries, but Nottingham has found it is not so easy to remove the nasty stain left by tobacco money. Sounding remarkably like a branch of BAT's public affairs department, the vice chancellor's office persistently claimed that the deal was consistent with the CRC inspired code. CRC repeatedly tried to correct this nonsense.

However, it was not CRC's head office, but its fundraisers and scientists in Nottingham who delivered the next body blows. In a poll of CRC's regional supporters, more than 90% said that, in the light of BAT's donation, they no longer felt comfortable raising funds for Nottingham. As a result, £1.5 million which was to be raised through an appeal to help build new research facilities in Nottingham will now be donated to Newcastle University instead. And the director of the CRC gene targeted drug design research group at Nottingham, Professor David Thurston, decided to take up a post at the University of London's School of Pharmacy, taking most of his 15 team colleagues with him. Although he did not want to leave Nottingham and had received strong support from the university's school of pharmacy, the fact that the CRC and its local supporters were unhappy about the BAT donation made Professor Thurston reconsider his location.

Still the university might have hoped for peace. But in March, students belonging to SASH, the student support group of Action on Smoking and Health, staged a protest at the Nottingham campus to keep up the pressure. In a parody of a popular national charity fund raising day, “Red Nose Day”, SASH members mimed the embarrassment that Nottingham's officials had so signally failed to demonstrate, by painting red patches on their faces and picketing the university's annual open day, which they renamed “Red Face Day”.

Meanwhile, the editor of the British Medical Journal (BMJ), Dr Richard Smith, considered his part time, unpaid post as professor of medical journalism at Nottingham. In a poll on theBMJ's website, he asked readers to vote on whether the university should be asked to return the money to BAT, and whether he should resign his honorary professorship if it refused to do so. Of the 1075 votes cast, 84% said that the university should return the money and 54% said that Dr Smith should resign, which, there being no hint of any change of attitude, he duly did in May.

It is a measure of the power of false and misleading mantras repeated by tobacco interests that, initially, Dr Smith accepted at face value Nottingham university's assertions about the funding being consistent with the code on tobacco funding of research, and that by implication, CRC agreed. Any misunderstanding was removed when CRC asked, in a letter to the BMJ, who was more likely to be the better judge: the cancer organisation that pioneered the code, or those bankrolled by an industry whose products cause a third of British cancer deaths.

Early in the saga CRC's director general, Professor Gordon McVie, predicted that the “tainted tobacco cash” would lead to a huge exodus of staff and sponsorship from Nottingham. That exodus has already begun, and reminds us of the frequently under realised power available to funding agencies of integrity, which can use their financial muscle to resist some of the tobacco industry's most insidious, anti-health activities.