Stanford allows the criminal tobacco industry to influence its research

Sept. 23, 2014, 12:20 p.m.

If you had a long-standing friendship with someone who you later discovered had been convicted of racketeering and fraud and had willfully misled you about their role in killing countless innocent individuals, wouldn’t you question whether the door to that friendship should remain open?  Apparently that is not the case with Stanford University, which keeps the door wide open to its long-standing friendship with the criminal tobacco industry, remaining open to accepting tobacco research money, as justified by Stanford’s claim of “academic freedom.”

Just what is “academic freedom” at Stanford?  As described in its Research Policy Handbook, academic freedom, “assures the fullest protection of freedom of inquiry, thought, expression, publication and peaceable assembly at Stanford University.”  Additionally, “individual scholars should be free to select the subject matter of their research, to seek support from any source for their work and to form their own findings and conclusions.”

As Stanford maintains its rigid adherence to this academic freedom, it apparently consciously ignores the severity of the criminal actions of the tobacco industry.  In 2006, the tobacco industry was found by a federal district court (U.S. v. Philip Morris USA, Inc.) to have violated federal racketeering and fraud statutes, due to its decades-long conspiracy of lying to the American people about the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke through deliberate manipulation of the science related to addiction and health effects.  In 2009, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit unanimously upheld this decision and, in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear appeals in this case, allowing the D.C. Circuit’s judgment to stand.

Why would Stanford ignore the criminal record of the tobacco industry?  Perhaps it has to do with Stanford’s long history of taking millions of dollars from the tobacco industry, as documented by Stanford Professor of History of Science Robert Proctor in his book Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition.  Therein, Professor Proctor reports that, as early as the 1930s, Stanford pharmacologists were assisting the tobacco industry with its studies of adding diethylene glycol to tobacco to make cigarette smoke “milder,” allowing more nicotine to be inhaled (interestingly, diethylene glycol has also been used as antifreeze in your car radiator.)  Further, in an effort to support the “sunny side of smoking,” R. J. Reynolds contracted with Stanford’s Aviation Safety Laboratory during 1996-97 to test a hypothesis that nicotine enhances performance in non-smoking pilots.  As recently as 2007, Philip Morris funded the research of a Stanford Medical School cardiologist to study the mechanism of nicotine enhancement of blood vessel growth.

Still, why would Stanford want to cling to the last vestiges of its friendship with big tobacco when actually it has done so much to end it?  In recent years, Stanford has terminated its investments in core tobacco companies, adopted a Smoke-Free Environment Policy that prohibits the smoking of tobacco products in enclosed buildings and facilities and during indoor or outdoor events on the campus, and has banned the sale of tobacco products on campus.  Additionally, the Stanford School of Medicine banned tobacco use anywhere on the Medical School campus, and the Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital has become 100 percent smoke free.

Seeking to finally rid the campus of big tobacco’s influence, in May 2007, certain Stanford faculty sought a ban on the acceptance of tobacco research funds through a resolution presented before the Faculty Senate.  Sadly, it was soundly defeated by a 21-10 vote, with the Stanford News Service reporting that, “President John Hennessy and Provost John Etchemendy, along with several faculty members, opposed the measure, saying such a ban would undermine academic freedom and open the door to requests to prohibit funding from other industries.” Actually, the President, Provost and certain faculty members remain confused about “open doors,” and the only door that is open is to big tobacco’s money.

When a world renowned research institution such as Stanford keeps its door open to big tobacco’s money and influence…lending its “good name” to any kind of tobacco research, it only furthers the reach of big tobacco’s tragic death toll. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that, “Worldwide, tobacco use causes more than 5 million deaths per year, and current trends show that tobacco use will cause more than 8 million deaths annually by 2030,” and that, “Cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the United States, including an estimated 41,000 deaths resulting from secondhand smoke exposure.” In light of these increasingly deadly statistics, Stanford’s policy of allowing acceptance of tobacco research money is even more shocking.  Having lost a father to smoking and a mother to inhalation of secondhand smoke, I find Stanford’s policy incredibly appalling.

Stanford should finally and completely slam the door shut in the face of their old tobacco friend for academia to be free from such vile, criminal elements. Now that’s true “academic freedom.”

Donald A. Bentley, M.S. in Civil Engineering ‘82

Contact Donald Bentley at [email protected].

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