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A recent commentary in Tobacco Controloutlined the nature of the relation between universities and research institutions, and research funding from tobacco companies.1 The article also addressed ways of countering this relationship. Revelations from the tobacco industry's internal documents from Australia show how effective pressure can be brought to bear by those who fund and participate in research by denying funding to organisations and individuals that take tainted tobacco dollars.
Australian tobacco companies established the Australian Tobacco Research Foundation in the 1970s and distributed grants through a scientific advisory committee. Its name was later given a public relations facelift and changed to the Smoking and Health Research Foundation. Its funding came from WD and HO Wills, Rothmans, and Philip Morris, each contributing around $500 000 per year.2 3Between 1970 and 1994 the foundation disbursed over $A9 million in grants.4 Its mission was “to conduct research into the relationship in Australia between smoking and health and disease in its widest context. Support may be given to projects which aim to elucidate the mechanisms by which tobacco smoking is thought to be linked to human disease”.3
In 1988, all members of the scientific advisory committee wrote a letter to the editor of the Medical Journal of Australia after suggestions that the foundation was supportive of the tobacco industry, or smoking, or both. They stated: “The members of the scientific advisory committee are unanimous in believing that smoking is an important causative factor in several major diseases . . . It is not our task to advise the tobacco industry on any matters other than those that relate directly to the funding of research projects, or to discuss other matters that are related to industry and society. In particular, we do not, in any sense, act as spokesmen for the tobacco industry, nor do we have any financial relationships with the tobacco industry except to advise on the disbursement of research funds.”2
None of the standard publicity material distributed by the Smoking and Health Research Foundation of Australia appears to make any mention of their source of funding; the name change from Australian Tobacco Research Foundation only contributes to obscuring an obvious connection.5
By the early 1990s the Australian Medical Association, the Thoracic Society of Australia, the National Heart Foundation of Australia, and some state cancer councils such as the New South Wales Cancer Council expressed their strong opposition to the acceptance of funds from tobacco industry sources.6 The National Heart Foundation and some state cancer councils went further and adopted policies which prohibited recipients of tobacco funding receiving their grants.6 A survey of 45 universities in 1991-92 found that only two had institution wide policies, however, and that seven out of 10 medical schools had faculty specific policies not to accept tobacco funds. Nevertheless, the authors concluded that “the nexus between the tobacco industry and centres of higher education remains strong”.6
In 1993 a national current affairs television programme,Sunday, explored the relation between the tobacco industry and its funding of medical research. As a result a motion was brought by senator John Herron in the Australian parliament congratulating the programme makers for their “exposure of the fraudulent behaviour of the tobacco industry and the spurious activities of the Australian Tobacco Research Foundation”. Professor Mike Rand of the scientific advisory committee wrote to another senator, Kerry Sibraa, expressing his profound disquiet about senator Herron's statement.4 In 1994, shortly after Rand had left the foundation, it awarded him $A281 900.7
In May 1996, the Australian Cancer Council sent a letter to all Australian universities advising that they had “adopted, in principle, the policy that it and its member bodies (the state cancer councils) would not provide research funds to institutions that receive, or allow any of its departments or staff to receive, research funds from the tobacco industry, either its institution (the Tobacco Institute of Australia) or individuals”.
The letter stemmed from concerns over evidence that the tobacco industry had consistently repressed its own in-house research showing the harmful effects of tobacco on health and ignored independent research showing such effects. There was also concern that individuals and institutions receiving grants from the tobacco industry would be inhibited in speaking against it in public debate, despite the evidence.8 The letter was also forwarded to all the members of the foundation in order for them to respond.
The policy was to be enforced progressively, recognising that research grants were usually for a period of three years. It was expected that by the 1998 round of grant applications, all institutions not abiding by the policy would be excluded from cancer society funding.
By the beginning of 1997 these actions were beginning to bite. Henry Goldberg from Philip Morris Australia outlined his concerns and possible alternative strategies in a memo to Marc Firestone of Philip Morris's New York headquarters: “It is quite clear that pressure has been exerted on both potential applicants and existing and potential members of the advisory committee. Two former members have been forced to resign by their employers (Professor McKenzie and Professor Vadas). The effect on the organisation is quite dramatic. Firstly there are few, if any, projects related to tobacco. When I was supported by this body in 1971-73, only projects which in some way related to tobacco were considered—now these are more of an exception. Furthermore, as several universities have banned the acceptance of these funds, the overall standard of applications has dropped. Quite obviously, many applicants treat us as a last resort.”
The memo then outlines four alternative strategies in dealing with the future of the foundation:
- Continue as is, the downside being that existing members of the advisory committee are getting fragile, and new recruits would be difficult, if not impossible, to find.
- Close, phasing out funding over three years, the downside being it concedes the area is not suitable for tobacco company involvement.
- Merge; fold the programme into some US or other effort. This was not seen to provide Philip Morris with any benefit, however.
- Replace with specific targeted support. Goldberg lists some examples of where he has moved in that direction, mostly in Victoria, funding the Mental Health Research Institute, multiple sclerosis research, juvenile diabetes research, and education programmes for gifted children and disadvantaged communities.9
In May 1997, at a meeting in the USA of the scientific research and review committee of Philip Morris, it was agreed to follow the second strategy option, phasing the funding out over three years. The reasons for this stemmed from the terms of the recent US settlement disbanding the Tobacco Institute and Council for Tobacco Research. The merger option was not seen to be viable. Based on the current situation both in Australia and the USA, the second option was seen to be most consistent with current trends and tactics both within and outside the industry.9 The foundation died a quiet death, slipping unnoticed from the landscape of Australian medical and scientific research funding.
Breaking the connection between the tobacco industry and sponsored research in Australia took many years of constant pressure at a number of levels involving healthcare institutions, universities, the media, and debate in medical journals. This example highlights how, when the investment in research does not provide tobacco companies with the respectability and image of social responsibility they are trying to buy, they reassess their strategy.