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In an unprecedented move in Canada, three faculties at the University of Alberta passed similar motions in a matter of weeks rejecting tobacco industry funding. One of these faculties was home to a researcher with a US$1.5 million grant by the US Smokeless Tobacco Company (UST).
The chain of events leading to this action started inadvertently. Over a year ago, a physician in the department of psychiatry applied for federal research funding designated for tobacco control in special populations. A requirement of the granting body was the absence of tobacco funding in the home department, which could not be complied with due to the alleged presence of a tobacco industry consultant in the department.
The university has a history of inconsistency in its policies on tobacco. In 2002, when the students’ union was offered a tobacco industry-funded scholarship, the board of governors interceded to prevent it. Yet when the students’ union acted to prohibit tobacco sales in its facilities on campus, the university did not follow suit. And in 2005, an epidemiologist was hired in a public health unit that later became part of Canada’s first school of public health, with funding from UST, the smokeless tobacco company.
In March 2007, the decision of the department of psychiatry to allow a faculty member to consult for the tobacco industry in preference to supporting an application for research became the subject of media attention, and over subsequent weeks this included television coverage, as well as newspaper articles, editorials and correspondence. It became apparent that Albertans were concerned about corporate influences in academia.
The faculty of medicine and dentistry quickly demonstrated leadership by passing a motion to reject tobacco industry funding for research. The faculty of nursing followed suit soon afterwards, enhancing its motion to include any form of funding, including paid consultancy. By this point, the majority of students and faculty members in the health sciences were protected from tobacco industry influence.
On 8 June, despite active tobacco-funded lobbying to boycott the meeting and sabotage the motion, the school of public health overwhelmingly passed the following motion:
Be it resolved that the School of Public Health will not accept or administer funding (including direct of indirect, such as scholarships and consultancies) for any purpose (including research, advocacy, student support, infrastructure or other university-related activities) from the tobacco industry (including individual companies or their component parts that are engaged in the production, manufacture, distribution, promotion, marketing, or sale of tobacco or tobacco products as their primary business) or from funds, foundations or people advocating directly or indirectly on behalf of the tobacco industry and any of its related products.
The decision is all the more significant for being made by Canada’s first and only school of public health, which is little more than a year old. By seizing the opportunity for ethical leadership, it demonstrated how public health can and should trump the interests of the tobacco industry in institutions of higher learning. A call to action is issued for other schools of medicine, nursing, and public health to initiate a process to follow suit. At the University of Alberta itself, the board of governors is now in a strong position to adopt a similar stance for the entire university, just prior to the Canadian Council for Tobacco Control’s national conference on tobacco to be held in the same city, Edmonton, in October.