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Hungarian health advocates have been shocked to learn that the roots put down in their country by BAT go even deeper than they previously suspected. It was already well known that BAT dominated commercial life in the southern city of Pécs, where it bought its way into a commanding position in central Europe by snapping up a major tobacco production plant after Hungary moved to a market economy. BAT had also not been shy to publicise its sponsorship of many parts of the local infrastructure, from the local theatre to a health clinic, and even a homeless person’s hostel with the unsubtle name of BAT Ház (BAT House). Not surprisingly, BAT enjoys loyal support from civic leaders who fail to understand the poisonous longer term effects of such support on the health of the people whose interests they represent, with even some doctors shrugging off the association as, on balance, something to be grateful for.
In December, it emerged that BAT has wormed its way much deeper into the woodwork of Hungarian society, by greatly strengthening its sponsorship of the old and highly respected university of Pécs, the second largest in the country. BAT was described in news reports as having become the principal sponsor of the university: there was already a “collaboration agreement”, dating from six years ago, but last September BAT increased its funding substantially. New arrangements included the election of Pauline Stam, a director of BAT Hungary since January 2004, as one of the university’s “social senators”, followed by the award of special “BAT Professors’ Scholarships”, worth US$2500, to five professors, three of them from the medical faculty. With a slight whiff of cosiness, it emerged that two of the lucky recipients are brothers, and two others are married to each other. In addition, a research group in the arts faculty is reportedly starting a large research project against youth smoking sponsored by BAT, in addition to a similar project, also BAT funded, in the medical faculty.
Hungarian health workers launched an information campaign to highlight the legislative loophole which allows sponsorship of government maintained agencies by tobacco companies—while the law bans direct and indirect tobacco advertising, only sports sponsorship by tobacco companies is banned (except for the Hungarian Formula One motor race).
In a sad reversal of how things might have been in the past, the student movement, whose leaders once would have had an above average awareness of the way power was wielded over ordinary people by small but powerful, un-elected minorities pursuing their own interests, seemed unconcerned. The head of the university students’ association even told a local newspaper reporter that he welcomed BAT’s sponsorship. One of the professors in the medical faculty gave a quick but telling response when questioned about accepting the BAT money: taking strong exception to the question, he simply put the phone down. But people in the university rector’s office took a more measured approach: they were, they said, ready to discuss the issue with health advocates.
A letter outlining health concerns was duly sent to the rector, though at the time of going to press no reply had been received. However, there were some hopeful signs that the university authorities had already begun to realise that this level of association with BAT might involve too great a risk of damaging the university’s reputation, and in particular the credibility of the medical faculty, however chilly the prevailing funding climate might be.
The health ministry has been working behind the scenes with university officials, putting broadly the same line as health advocates had taken, making it plain that collaboration with BAT is undesirable. University authorities were said to be planning to re-open discussions with BAT about the funding, while significant changes had already been made to the university’s website. No reference to BAT can now be found on the site, even in the section on sponsors, where last year its name appeared at the top of the list. A link to BAT’s own website, and a short presentation about BAT itself, previously on the university website, have also been removed.
BAT continues to be a very active sponsor of social establishments and cultural events in Pécs, but perhaps the university deal will backfire. Those in any doubt about why tobacco companies do this sort of thing have only to ask themselves: what value will BAT’s shareholders get in return for their money being used this way? Whatever answers they come up with, they have to be bad for the future health of Hungarians. When the university authorities reflect on this, they will realise that taking tobacco money is a reckless risk of the reputation of a highly venerated, centuries old seat of academic excellence; when tobacco money is offered, reputation is beyond price.