Selling off or selling out? Medical schools and ethical leadership in tobacco stock divestment

Acad Med. 2004 Nov;79(11):1017-26. doi: 10.1097/00001888-200411000-00002.


Medical and health science schools occupy a prestigious place in U.S. society. When they express a position on tobacco use--either by action or silence--that expression is consequential. Recognizing this, the tobacco industry has worked to sustain and exploit relationships with academic health sciences institutions. Corporate contributions to medical research are more visible, but institutional investments in tobacco stocks are also crucial to these relationships. The American Medical Association divested (sold) its tobacco holdings in 1986, urging others to do the same. Yet, as late as 2004, at least five of the leading dozen medical schools have not divested, and those that have seem reluctant to publicize their actions. The authors use internal tobacco industry documents and secondary source material to describe and analyze Philip Morris's response to two cases of threatened academic divestment. In each case, the world's largest tobacco company succeeded in minimizing the impact of divestment activities--in the first, by muting the consequences of a divestment, and in the second, by convincing university decisionmakers to recommend against tobacco stock divestment. In addition to arguing that tobacco divestment would lead to other pressures or be ineffective, the company exploited university concerns about losing corporate research funding as a key element of its antidivestment strategy. If academic medical centers regard protection of the public's health as a primary mission, divestment from tobacco holdings is essential; profiting from tobacco either through investments or research funding undermines this mission. Silent divestment squanders opportunities for ethical leadership and public dialogue.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Conflict of Interest*
  • Humans
  • Investments / ethics*
  • Leadership
  • Organizational Policy
  • Schools, Medical / economics*
  • Schools, Medical / ethics*
  • Societies, Medical
  • Tobacco Industry / economics*
  • United States