An ashtray with cigarette butts in it

Smoking causes cancer

Durham University is facing protests after taking £125,000 from tobacco firm British American Tobacco (BAT) to help fund scholarships for women from Afghanistan. The tobacco industry’s record means academic institutions should have nothing to do with it.

This isn’t just because they sell the only consumer product that, used exactly as intended by the manufacturer, kills a large proportion of its users – 100,000 people in the UK, including 25 per cent of deaths from cancer.

The tobacco industry seeks to gain unwarranted respectability by association with credible bodies such as universities. Companies like BAT want to be seen as socially responsible so governments do not take effective steps to curb smoking.

These kinds of donations aim to create an environment where there are soft government policies on tobacco – these lead to fewer quitters and more deaths from lung cancer and many other diseases.

Keeping our distance

Cancer Research UK’s Code of Practice on tobacco is part of our terms and conditions for researchers seeking our support. We have to protect the integrity of our own research funding. So we do not make grants where those supported by our supporters’ donations are working in such proximity to others supported by tobacco industry funding that there is any possibility or likelihood that facilities, equipment or other resources will be shared.

But stories in today’s media show the real nature of BAT’s concern for women. On World No Tobacco Day, MPs in the North East are highlighting their concerns about how BAT is targeting Northern women with ‘Vogue’ cigarettes. The advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi, which does not work for tobacco companies, has analysed the design of the packets.

They evoke the classic days of smoking – Jean Luc Godard’s ‘À bout de souffle’ comes to mind… The smoker feels like a French movie star, as opposed to an addict. And the price premium (£6.20) keeps the ‘vagabonds’ away.

Altogether, Vogue is trying to capitalise on a woman’s desire to feel beautiful to sell their cigarettes, which is sad because they can only destroy it.

This illustrates why the Government is looking at removing the packaging from cigarettes. Research shows plain packets make cigarettes less appealing and mean companies cannot use light colours on the packet to mislead people about the health dangers of their cigarettes.

The tobacco industry is energetically fighting this idea because they fear that it will work – and so hurt their profits. Spending £125,000 to seem like the kind of caring people who pay for Afghan women to study at university is small change to this company.

But when 5,500 people die from smoking every year in the University’s region, Durham University should return the money.


Robin Hewings is Cancer Research UK’s tobacco control policy manager