Across the United States, the tide continues to turn against tobacco. The struggle to stem the local, national and global health crisis created by tobacco has now reached a pivotal point here in Philadelphia: At their June 19-20 meeting, the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania will vote on a proposal submitted by an ad hoc committee in October that urges them to exclude stocks in tobacco companies from Penn's $7 billion investment portfolio. We strongly endorse this proposal and ask the Trustees to approve it.
Coincidentally—but with resonant symbolism—the vote will take place 50 years after U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry, in January 1964, published his landmark report definitively linking tobacco to greatly increased risks of heart disease, stroke, and many kinds of cancer. Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death in the United States: more than 480,000 Americans die every year from smoking-related illnesses. Every day, another 1,000 American children become smokers.
Tobacco is also a global epidemic. Each year, some six million individuals die from tobacco use. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes that tobacco will kill one billion people in the 21st century—more than five times as many deaths as in all the wars of the 20th. Many of tobacco’s victims live in the developing world, where tobacco companies have cynically targeted their advertising, and where they routinely give free cigarettes to children. Along with campaigns of deceptive marketing, tobacco companies have also learned to manipulate the chemistry of cigarettes to make them more addictive.
Recognizing that the products of tobacco companies pose enormous threats to public health, many universities, health centers, and foundations began divesting from tobacco stocks decades ago. Harvard, Columbia, Dartmouth, and Brown have all divested – Harvard as long ago as 1990. So also have Stanford, Michigan, the University of California system, and Johns Hopkins, among others. Conspicuously absent from this list has been Penn – and Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, which is the only medical school among the top five without a divestment policy.
The case for divestment is strengthened by Penn’s location in Philadelphia, the poorest of America’s 10 largest cities. Today, one in four adult Philadelphians smokes, a rate that is among the highest of the big cities and is correlated with Philadelphia’s level of poverty.
The divestment proposal on which Penn’s Trustees will vote has gained a remarkable level of support from the university’s faculty. The members of the Senate Executive Committee represent all of the university’s faculty constituencies. On Feb. 12, the members present voted 30-0 in favor of the divestment proposal. A week later, the University Council (which includes students and administrators along with faculty) voted 51 in favor, with six opposed, and two abstentions.
Over the past several weeks, more than 530 senior members of Penn’s standing faculty have signed an “Open Letter to the Trustees” urging divestment – an unprecedented demonstration of consensus. The letter points out that “Investment in tobacco company stocks is clearly antithetical to the university’s research, teaching and health care missions.” One of the signatories, Penn professor S. Walter Englander, commented that “When the school is making money from companies that are effectively selling cancer, I don’t think that’s the kind of thing we ought to be doing, and I think it’s up to us to speak up and sign petitions. This isn’t a political issue. This is a clear health issue.”
Penn has repeatedly declared its institutional commitment to improving the health and life chances of the world’s men, women and children. In support of that commitment, the university is currently engaged in numerous research projects aimed at combatting tobacco use. For example, Professor Caryn Lerman has noted Penn’s particular efforts to “uncover new ways of countering the insidious effects of advertising and misinformation that induce people, especially the young, to adopt this lethal habit.”
Along with its research programs, Penn has also undertaken initiatives to discourage smoking on campus. Beginning last July, the University of Pennsylvania Health System has refused to hire tobacco users as part of its efforts to improve the overall health of the workforce while reducing the cost of health-care benefits.
At the same time, the university’s Center for Public Health Initiatives has launched a campaign aimed at creating a “smoke-free campus” over the next several years.
Penn has declared that 2014-2015 will be a “Year of Health.” According to the announcement describing this program: “Health is an area of primary concern to all of our constituents. Many of Penn’s resource centers are actively involved in it—Penn Medicine, an internationally famous center for care, teaching and research; our School of Nursing; the Center for Public Health and others. But the topic is equally engaging across all of Penn’s schools.”
The divestment proposal is fully aligned with the Trustees’ statement on social responsibility in investments: “[W]hen the Trustees determine that corporate policies or practices cause substantial social injury or substantial environmental harm, they, as responsible and ethical investors, shall give independent weight to this factor in their investment policies and in voting proxies on corporate securities.”
The Trustees define “substantial social injury” as “the excessive or deliberate injurious impact on employees, consumers, and/or other individuals, or groups resulting directly from specific actions or inactions by a company.”
Few entities so abundantly meet the Trustees’ definition of companies that cause massive injurious impact as those that produce and market tobacco products. Investment in tobacco clearly runs counter to its own guidelines for ethical investing.
The tide against tobacco is indeed rising, and the time has come for the university to align its investments with its stated institutional goals, with the research agenda and the ethical position of so many of its faculty.
Michael Weisberg, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Chairman of Penn's Social Responsibiity Advisory Committee
Read more about The Public's Health.