Universities & Tobacco

An Insidious Obstacle to Tobacco Control

Divestment- Universities & Tobacco

In 1984, the US physicians’ activist group Doctors Ought to Care (DOC} created Project S.N.U.F.F. (Stop Noxious University Funding Forever) to influence universities with medical schools to divest tobacco stocks from their endowments. The University of Illinois and a handful of other institutions agreed. Most others did not. The president of Rice University, holder of the most tobacco industry stock by any university in the 1990s, defended its investment by claiming that the lucrative dividends helped keep down tuition costs.

Other universities with prominent medical schools that divested their tobacco stacks include Johns Hopkins University (1991), Stanford University (1998), University of Washington (2000), and University of California (2001). Not all divestment efforts were successful, however. The University of Texas (UT), with its world-famous reputation for the treatment of cancer at its MD Anderson Cancer Center, invested almost $50 million in tobacco stocks. ln 1991, a single student, aided by DOC, succeeded in, persuading half of the Board of Regents to vote to divest tobacco stocks, but the chairman broke a 4-4 tie by voting to retain the investment. As a consolation, the board passed a resolution banning smoking on the entire campus.

In 1986, the author, along with faculty members, students and investment managers from many U.S. colleges and universities, attended a meeting on ethical investing. They discussed the ethics of holding shares in companies that produced items used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons or with ties to apartheid South Africa. When the author challenged the participants to urge their institutions to divest their tobacco stacks because of the health toll caused by smoking, audience members voiced concerns about abrogating freedom of choice and the right to smoke. Only when the author pointed out that Philip Morris held a major stake in the South African cigarette company Rothmans did the group acknowledge that divesting Philip Morris stock might merit consideration.

In 1990, DOC member Phil Huang, MD, MPH, led a successful effort to convince Harvard University to eliminate $40 million in tobacco stocks from its endowment fund investments. As a student at the School of Public Health, Huang created a campus radio advertisement that pointed out the hypocrisy of President Derek Bok’s call for university leadership in demonstrating strong moral and civic values, while Harvard continued to invest in the tobacco industry. A news report further exposed tile university’s hypocrisy of investing in tobacco companies while receiving $54 million in research grants from the National Cancer Institute.

Like the vast majority of universities, US academia’s largest retirement provider of financial services, TIM (Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association), hasn’t sold its tobacco stocks, which are simply too lucrative. This means that thousands of physicians and other public health professionals who teach in medical schools including the author-also benefit from tobacco stock profits as members of TIAA. In 1996, at the height of the lawsuits brought by the state attorneys-general against the cigarette manufacturers and when public enmity toward the industry was growing, TIM created a separate investment fund, the Social Choice Account, as a tobacco-free vehicle for retirement investors. But TIAA has rebuffed all calls to sell its vast tobacco stock holdings. In its 2017 annual report, TIM lists investments totaling more than $450 million in Philip Morris International, maker of Marlboro, the world’s best-selling cigarette, and its counterpart Altria, which controls over 50% of the US cigarette market. TIAA is thus one of the biggest investors in Big Tobacco. Nor has TIAA stood with the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility in its shareholder resolutions aimed at curbing the tobacco industry’s aggressive expansion into Africa, Asia; and Eastern Europe.