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I had never taken a particularly close interest in the effects of smoking on health. It all appeared rather obvious—cigarettes were bad for you, and any further investigation seemed unlikely to lead to an unforeseen conclusion.
After five year's employment as head of public communication at the UK Medical Research Council (MRC), in 1994 I learned that one of our units (a group of scientists directly employed by the MRC) was on the point of accepting a £147 000 grant from British American Tobacco (BAT) to fund work into the effect of nicotine on Alzheimer's disease. Needless to say, the offer was hedged with mentions of “no strings”, and “complete freedom”.
The information came from the MRC's Technology Transfer Group, who, far from questioning the acceptability of taking the money, were simply asking how it should be paid. I subsequently discovered that they had actually solicited it; the original funder of the work had pulled out after discovering that the patent on this use of nicotine lay with the tobacco industry.
Despite the fact that I was responsible for advising on issues likely to affect the MRC's relations with the media, politicians, and the public, I was not asked for my views by those responsible for taking the decision on this matter. All the same, I made it clear in writing that I felt very strongly that the money should not be accepted.
I was seriously concerned about the effect that disclosure of such funding would have …