UCT pulls the plug on e-cigarette promotion event after outrage

The University of Cape Town has been forced to cancel an event that its business school had planned to co-host with tobacco company Phillip Morris International after academics and civil society organisations raised the alarm about it.

The event Technology as a Game Changer was to be hosted by the university's Graduate School of Business and was scheduled to be held in the business school’s boardroom on September 13, 2018.

But several academics wrote to the university's management advising them of the negative consequences of being affiliated to the event.

"What I do wish to point out is that the GSB’s co-hosting with Phillip Morris is both a serious political error for UCT and a statement of values with which I do not think the GSB wishes to be associated. Innovation cannot be an end in itself – it has to be about innovation that benefits the public," said Professor Leslie London.

"The GSB should, firstly, cancel the event, explaining why it is inappropriate to enter a partnership with Big Tobacco, especially at this particular juncture, where the industry is seeking to sway public opinion in a concerted marketing campaign in response to legislative changes.Secondly, the GSB should also publicly declare and return to Phillip Morris any funds advanced to the GSB for co-hosting the event," he added.

Peters Hers, Executive Committee Member of the Cancer Alliance also mailed acting head of the business school Professor Kosheek Sewchurran. "Academic institutions should not offer a platform to the tobacco and smoke-free alternative industries as they will use this to build credibility for themselves. There is currently a dispute in the public health sector about the use of e-cigarettes and other smoke-free alternatives to cigarettes because of the health harm that is already evident from short-term consumption. Many countries have introduced regulation of these products along the lines proposed in our Draft Tobacco Bill. This kind of event will be used by these harmful industries to claim support from UCT and also to create the impression that they are a neutral player in this debate," said Hers.

The National Council Against Smoking sent UCT Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng a letter calling for the event to be cancelled. In the letter NCAS Executive Director Savera Kalideen said: "The Council is concerned about the university’s willingness to associate with a brand that has been linked to significant health harm. It is evident that the tobacco company is motivated by an attempt to gain credibility from a respected and reputable university. The event has the potential to support this attempt by the tobacco company to position itself as a neutral voice in the public health debate in relation to e-cigarettes. But this would be a fallacy and a marketing coup for the manufactures of this harmful product."

The event is an attempt to influence policy and public perception around e-cigarettes and feel that it breaches the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention for Tobacco Control. We therefore call on you withdraw this event. The WHO FCTC is the world’s only tobacco control evidence-based treaty and has been commended by global leaders for providing the primary roadmap to a tobacco-free world.

Article 5.3 of the convention notes that there is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public health policy interests. It further notes that the tobacco industry should not be granted incentives to establish or run their businesses – and that any preferential treatment of the tobacco industry would be in conflict with tobacco control policy.

While there are not guidelines that govern the relationship that academic institutions have with toxic industries in the form of research funding and publication as well as investment policies, the challenge is that institutions like yours are considered to operate for the greater good of educating future leaders and need to understand the consequences of affiliations that they are presented with. By affiliating with them, the university is bound to lend them credibility.

Phillip Morris International (PMI) is among a number of tobacco companies that has – in the past -- deliberately misled the public about tobacco-related harm from cigarettes and hidden evidence that their products are carcinogenic. In recent years they have been promoting new technologies to deliver nicotine to addicted smokers in ways that they claim are less harmful to both the smoker and those around the smoker.

However, mounting global evidence shows e-cigarettes to be more harmful than their manufacturers suggest. The evidence shows that their daily use is linked to an increased risk of a heart attack as well as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases like bronchitis and emphysema. According to one study, e-cigarettes trigger inflammatory processes in the body, depress immune function in lungs and are associated with children developing chronic bronchitis.

Legislative proposals by the South African Department of Health to regulate and control the marketing of e-cigarettes have been strongly opposed by both the tobacco industry and the e-cigarette industry who have been promoting their products as less harmful than cigarettes. All the evidence points to their products as harmful, not harmless, and that is the primary public health message that we have to communicate.

The event with the Graduate School of Business comes a few weeks after Philip Morris International convened a workshop for journalists from Anglophone and Francophone African countries in Johannesburg under the theme, “Harm Reduction: Gateway to A Smoke Free Continent?”

E-cigarette companies have also relied on research by Public Health England showing that e-cigarettes are 95% less harmful than cigarettes to build their case. This research has been discredited by the Lancet, an established journal, which has pointed to flaws in the research methodology and noted that the findings of the study have been misrepresented by the e-cigarette industry. In addition and importantly, the Public Health England study was not independent, with the Lancet noting that one of the writers was employed by the e-cigarette industry as a distributor.

In the latest research, published in the journal Thorax, researchers from the University of Birmingham showed that using e-cigarettes can damage vital immune system cells. They found e-cigarette vapour disabled important immune cells in the lung and boosted inflammation. The vapour caused inflammation and impaired the activity of cells that remove potentially damaging dust particles, bacteria and allergens. They said some of the effects were similar to those seen in regular smokers and people with chronic lung disease.

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