Associations between universities and the tobacco industry: what institutional policies limit these associations?

Author:Thomson, George
 
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Abstract

This paper examines the extent of associations between the tobacco industry and New Zealand universities, and the institutional mechanisms that have been used to limit such associations. Tobacco industry documents were searched for associations between New Zealand universities and the tobacco industry. The stratagems used by New Zealand universities, funders, professional societies and government to limit such associations were analysed, using written requests, website surveys and interviews. Philip Morris invested at least US$790,000 into research at the University of Auckland during 1988-1996, and other associations between tobacco companies and New Zealand universities have continued until at least 2004. There are still few formal policies in New Zealand to prevent such associations. In contrast, a number of prominent Australian universities formally limit their associations with the tobacco industry. If the evidence of harm to the public interest from associations with the tobacco industry is accepted, then, despite the risk to academic freedom, formal policies to address such associations may be warranted. To be most effective, policies by research institutions and funders on tobacco industry associations should be formal and explicit, and also need to be comprehensive and effectively implemented.

INTRODUCTION

This study explores the institutional mechanisms that have been used to limit associations between the tobacco industry and New Zealand universities. Our research is premised on the view that such associations are potentially unsafe. A substantial literature from 1982 has found dangers to public health and to the public interest from associations between universities and the tobacco industry ("Smoking still kills" 1982, Fischer and Richards 1986, Pierce 1986, Shaw 1986).

The potential dangers include giving respectability to the industry, the tendency to remain silent about industry behaviour and tobacco harm, the active perversion of research processes by the industry, and the diversion of public, scientific and government attention from tobacco harm ("Smoking still kills" 1982, Wolinsky 1985, Fischer and Richards 1986, Pierce 1986, Shaw 1986, Chapman 1987, Warner 1991, Cohen et al. 1999, Bitton et al. 2005, Garne et al. 2005). The documented perversions by tobacco companies--individually or collectively--of the pursuit of truth include the covert control of academic journals (Bitton et al. 2005, Garne et al. 2005), the manipulation of research processes and arenas (Barnes and Bero 1998, Ong and Glantz 2000, 2001, Tong et al. 2005), the suppression of results (Diethelm et al. 2005), and the attempted corruption of research and health organisations (Zeltner et al. 2000, Yach and Bialous 2001).

One of the most obvious potential dangers of association has been the implied support of an industry that has denied and deceived about the harm from its products. Since 1964 or before, suggestions that there was a scientific "controversy" as to whether or not this harm existed have been very largely driven by the tobacco industry (Doll 1998, Hill et al. 2003, Parascandola 2004, Proctor 2004, Talley et al. 2004).

The literature on such dangers is now supported by wider research that indicates adverse consequences from financial and other associations between researchers and the commercial funders of research whose activities are related to the research area. These consequences can include lower-quality, fewer and more biased publications (DeAngelis 2000, Lexchin et al. 2003). There appears to be no immediately obvious reason why these dangers should not apply to New Zealand. Tobacco industry associations with universities occur in the context of growing concerns about the conflicts involved in business-research links (Cho et al. 2000, Morgan et al. 2000, Cech and Leonard 2001).

Worldwide, universities have been slowly developing defences against the perceived dangers to the public interest from associations with the tobacco industry. In 1982, the University of Sydney in Australia adopted a policy refusing support from the tobacco industry (Miller 1982). However, in much of the academic world little or no action was taken until the 1990s, even in medical faculties (Blum 1992, Walsh et al. 1994, Lewison et al. 1997, Spurgeon 2002). A number of universities and research-funding agencies in North America, Britain and Australia now have policies limiting funding of research by the tobacco industry (Cohen 2001). Because of the possible dangers to the public interest, we examined the extent of such associations in New Zealand, and the institutional mechanisms that have been used to limit associations between the tobacco industry and New Zealand universities.

The consequences of associations between tobacco companies and universities can be seen as erosions of the public interest. For this paper, "public interest" has been defined as "an approach that serves society as a whole, is focussed on the longer term and is not solely in the service of special interests" (Pearson 2001). A public interest approach, in this context, would thus look at the societal implications of actions by universities.

This research has been informed by institutional theory, which argues that policy making is often shaped by the nature of the institutions involved. The theory is concerned with the formal and informal policy mechanisms and embedded ideas of institutions, such as the rules, processes and structures that frame the policy possibilities within institutions (March and Olsen 1996).

METHODS

Between May 2001 and May 2002, all available tobacco industry internal documents concerning New Zealand were collected from the United States Master Settlement Agreement websites (Master Settlement Agreement no date) by the University of Sydney tobacco document research team (University of Sydney no date). To explore aspects of the relationship between New Zealand universities and the tobacco industry, this set was searched for documents relating to universities and research. The material was supplemented by searches on the Tobacco Documents Online website, requests under the Official Information Act and searches in the secondary literature.

To understand the way such associations between the universities and the tobacco industry are handled, and to explore more widely the protections of the public interest, data were also assembled on the policies of New Zealand research funders, university and funder ethics committees, scientific and professional societies, universities, and government.

In May-July 2004, a search was made of policy documents of the eight New Zealand universities, five New Zealand research funders, a research ethics body and two professional societies for their formal policies about the protection or enhancement of the public interest. To provide a comparison, the results were contrasted with information found in an October 2003 search of the websites of 43 Australian universities, which were searched for policies about associating with the tobacco industry, using the phrase "tobacco industry". The universities were those listed by the Australian Department of Education (Department of Education Science and Training 2003).

In examining the policies of funders, we chose the major relevant agencies in New Zealand. These were the Foundation for Research Science and Technology, Health Research Council, Heart Foundation and Cancer Society, and the research ethics committees organised by the Ministry of Health. Much of the health research funding in New Zealand requires approval by these ethics committees. The Royal Society of New Zealand is both a substantial research funder (through the Marsden Fund) and the pre-eminent scientific professional society for New Zealand.

To provide additional context, telephone interviews were conducted with two New Zealand university research administrators, and with four of the six scientists funded at the University of Auckland by the Philip Morris tobacco company. Structured interview formats were created for each of the two groups of interviewees, whom we agreed not to identify by name or current institution. The interviews took 25-70 minutes, and the transcripts and notes were thematically analysed. The research plan was approved by the University of Otago Human Ethics Committee.

The Limitations of the Research

The relative dependence on website-sourced documents means that some of the relevant formal organisation policies may not have been found. A wider and more representative selection of interviews with university and funding administrators could have provided a much richer context within which to check the documentary material.

RESULTS

Relationships between the Tobacco Industry and New Zealand Universities

The study found evidence of only one major project at a New Zealand university funded by the tobacco industry. This work, at the University of Auckland, was part of a wider Philip Morris plan during 1988-1996, called Project Cosmic (Philip Morris 1991, Mangan 1994). Two key objectives of Project Cosmic were to facilitate research and publications that might suggest that smoking has benefits, and to keep up with the "changing scientific and public policy environment" by the development of a network of experts (Philip Morris 1990).

In May 1988, the University of Auckland signed a contract with Philip Morris for a three-year research project (Ennis 1992). The project was for three experiments to further examine the theory that nicotine enhances "psychological comfort" and "mental and psychomotor performance" (Mangan 1987, Bergquist and Houghton 1988). The project was renewed (through the University of Auckland company UniServices Ltd) in 1990, 1992 and 1994, with a total funding of at least US$790,000 during 1988-1996 (Philip Morris 1991, 1996, Mangan 1994).

From 1992, the University of Auckland project workers published a number of articles about this research in...

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