The smoke has not yet cleared at Virginia Commonwealth University, still under fire for its ties with Philip Morris and Big Tobacco.
On the eve of its planned Sept. 3 town hall meeting, scheduled to vent faculty and student frustrations over a secret and potentially restrictive research agreement with Philip Morris USA, the university now has to contend with a public call from the American Lung Association to break cash ties with Big Tobacco.
As part of a campaign launched this week aimed at promoting smoke-free campuses, the national chapter is calling on Virginia colleges to “refuse all research and sponsorship funding from the tobacco industry.”
Piggybacking that message, the Virginia chapter has released its own statement, specifically calling on VCU to drop its Philip Morris ties.
“We are strongly opposed to the financial relationship between Virginia Commonwealth University and Philip Morris USA,” says David M. DeBiasi, director of advocacy and public education for the Virginia Lung Association. “No. 1, VCU is a public institution to serve the public good; tobacco has harmed public health more than any other product in history.”
More pointedly, DeBiasi says Philip Morris has a history of tainting its research. “They didn't admit until 1988 that their product was lethal,” he says. “They're not good scientific partners. They've proven that.”
The university's controversial agreement with Philip Morris USA landed it in public hot water after its disclosure in late May in a critical New York Times article. The agreement's restrictive terms violated university policies and resulted in an outcry from researchers and faculty on campus. President Eugene P. Trani appointed an internal panel to review how the agreement came about.
Shortly after that agreement was revealed, Style Weekly reported on another controversial VCU connection to the tobacco industry. Earlier this year, the university approached Altria, Philip Morris' parent company, seeking funds for a proposed Center for Healthy Pregnancy and Neonatal Outcomes, which would have focused on low-income families and involved a controversial nicotine replacement regimen.
Dr. Sheldon M. Retchin, chief executive of VCU Health Systems, who spoke briefly with Style on Aug. 14, the day Trani announced his retirement, stood by the university's research agreement.
“It's tiny, it's small,” he said, noting the amount of the funding from Philip Morris was less than $1 million.
When pressed about whether the substance of the Philip Morris agreement itself might be reconsidered, Retchin repeatedly deflected the question, but eventually acknowledged it could be. “I think you can reconsider any contract,” he said, “and whether it's in the best interest of the university.”