UU promises: no collaboration with the tobacco industry anymore

Illustration from the Tabaknee foundation website

This past fall, Law professor John Vervaele received funds to conduct research on illegal cigarette trade. The money was granted by the Philip Morris impact foundation – a foundation connected directly to the large tobacco corporation Philip Morris.

The Executive Board said it was a hard decision to make. Initially, the proposal was even rejected. But after internal debate, the board eventually agreed, partially because the proposal had already been submitted and approved. “We did choose to be transparent in this, and we initiated the contact with the media ourselves,” rector Bert van der Zwaan explains. DUB published an interview (in Dutch) with Vervaele, who states that in his view, this research is not about the tobacco industry and health, but about the damage of illegal tobacco trade in a judicial context.  Weekly magazine De Groene Amsterdammer also wrote an article on the subject (in Dutch).

One reason the Executive Board struggled with the decision is that in today’s society, it’s not done to collaborate with the tobacco industry – especially when you’re a university that also conducts research on lung cancer. Cancer foundation KWF maintains a policy of not giving out subsidies to organizations that have ties to the tobacco industry. According to their policies, then, the UU would no longer qualify for KWF grants due to Vervaele’s research.

Those KWF grants are some major figures. In Utrecht, the KWF sponsors 92 projects, which means millions of euros. Aside from the UU, the KWF also partners with the UMC Utrecht and the Hubrecht Institute. Often, scientists of several organizations collaborate on projects.

“We don’t see the tobacco industry as a regular commercial corporation,” KWF spokesperson Mischa Stubenitsky explains. “The impact of smoking on our health is huge. One in two smokers is at risk for diseases. In the Netherlands, 20.000 people die each year as a direct result of their addiction, of which 12.000 die from lung cancer. In our view, you shouldn’t want to collaborate with companies like these.”

The KWF tightened up the regulations in 2017. Stubenitsky: “Before 2017, our regulations stated that the main researcher shouldn’t have ties to the tobacco industry. We expanded this last year to not just the main researcher, but anyone connected to a project.” As a result, the UU was at risk of losing the KWF funds. After talks between the university and the KWF, parties agreed last October that this one research project won’t have any consequences. The UU promised to never have any research be funded by the tobacco industry anymore. The KWF was partially lenient because of the recent rule change, of which the UU was not aware.

Still, the discussion continues. Late December, Frits van Dam – psychologist and active member of anti-tobacco organization Tabaknee – writes an opinion (in Dutch) in which he calls for the UU to halt the current research. “The university owes it to its constituents to break off the collaboration between Vervaele and the tobacco industry. Internal mails show Vervaele could also have received funds for his research from the KWF – an option which, according to these internal emails, he hadn’t even considered himself.”

On Friday, January 5th, the Dutch Association for Oncology wrote a letter to the UU’s Executive Board, urgently calling for the university to end the research project. The letter states: “…under the guise of fighting tobacco, Philip Morris Industry (PMI) contacted a large number of research organizations with a 1 billion euro budget for research, like prof. Vervaele’s, in order to try to lower tobacco excise. Last month, a hundred universities in the US and UK, among which Harvard, University College London, and Columbia, clearly stated their refusal to cooperate with such blatant attempts at surreptitious advertising, and, to quote the 2002 Harvard manifesto: ‘not to … accept any grant or anything else of value from any tobacco manufacturer, distributor, or other tobacco-related company.’”

The oncology association says the ties to Philip Morris are damaging to not only Utrecht University, but to the reputation of independent research in the Netherlands, especially cancer-related research.

The university responded immediately on Monday, by explaining the agreements with the KWF, and a statement saying that the UU has long since held policies forbidding research benefitting the tobacco industry.

The university is, however, still in support of Vervaele’s research. The funds are provided by an independent foundation that is linked to Philip Morris. The university claims this set-up sufficiently secures the study’s independence and integrity.

The university employs a code of conduct with general guidelines that can assist in forming collaborations, but these guidelines aren’t very specific. They don’t, for instance, mention that the UU refuses to work with organizations that have ties to the tobacco industry, or the weapon industry.

The Association for Oncology is disappointed by the UU’s response. Secretary Lukas Stalpers writes: “We think it’s not careful to let yourself be paid by the lethal tobacco industry, and ‘scientific independence’ in a collaboration with a notoriously shifty industry is an incredibly naïve idea.” He writes that the study’s hypothesis is that lowering the tobacco excise lessens illegal tobacco trade. “I’m sure this will be the conclusion of this research project. But higher excise on tobacco is mostly meant as a measure for public health: studies in countries like Australia, New Zealand, the US and the UK have already proven that higher excise is effective in reducing tobacco usage.”

The UU regularly receives calls to end collaborations with external organizations. The organization Fossil Free, for instance, thinks (in Dutch) the UU should cut ties with companies that profit from fossil fuels, like Shell, or the university’s bank ABN Amro. Others vote to ban collaborations with the alcohol industry. So far, those steps have not (yet) been taken.


In a press release on january 17th, the Utrecht University announced that the Utrecht University has informed PMI Impact that it will not accept funding for a study into tobacco smuggling. The study by professor Vervaele will continue but will be funded by the University itself.

The University has been criticised for accepting the amount of 360,000 euros, to be made available over a two-year period, from a fund financed by the tobacco industry. The critics included Dutch Cancer Society KWF and other healthcare organisations. Executive Board President Anton Pijpers: 'In view of the social debate and at the express request of partners who are extremely important to us, we have decided to end this funding arrangement.'

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