Who trusts a tobacco-stained university in a pandemic?

guest column

Duke is grappling with how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. President Vincent Price has called it a “public health emergency.” But considering the university’s long, profitable history of entanglement with the tobacco industry, why should we see Duke’s leaders as trustworthy defenders of public health? Duke becoming a tobacco-free campus on July 1 presents an opportunity for the Duke community to reckon with our tobacco-stained history. Instead, Duke’s leaders are obscuring that history.

Duke policies around tobacco use on campus have been far less urgent than the “public health emergency” around COVID-19, despite the fact that “tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States,” causing more than 480,000 deaths annually. A scientific consensus that smoking kills emerged in the mid-1950s. Yet only in the past few years, with a national movement for tobacco-free campuses, have Duke students and public health advocates pushed the administration to ban tobacco use on campus. 

Duke administrators have taken starkly different approaches to these two public health crises—an emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic vs. a 60-year delayed response to the tobacco disease pandemic. But these are actually expressions of a common principle: valuing profit over public health. 

On the one hand, the COVID-19 pandemic presents a challenge to Duke's accumulation of capital, as closing the campus for public health severely limits their extraction of profit from workers' labor and students’ tuition, fees, and rent. On the other hand, the tobacco disease pandemic has aided Duke’s accumulation of profits, in multiple ways, for over a century. 

If Duke administrators want to gain the trust of the public for their response to the pandemic, they must prove they have broken from their long tradition of valuing profit over public health by acknowledging and reckoning with that history. 

From 1887 through the 1920s, the Duke family donated to Trinity College tens of millions of dollars accumulated from their monopoly on the tobacco industry. From the 1880s to today, Trinity and Duke professors have conducted research for the tobacco industry, from research on improving tobacco crops to studies that manufactured uncertainty about the dangers of smoking, acting as “merchants of doubt.” 

Paul Gross, Professor of Chemistry and longtime Duke administrator, served as an expert for the tobacco industry, contributing to their insistence that tobacco did not cause negative health effects, despite his knowledge of evidence to the contrary. From 1930-1960, Frederick Darkis rotated between being a member of Duke faculty researching tobacco chemistry (in a lab funded by Liggett & Myers) and the Chief of Research at Liggett & Myers. The Duke guidelines for conflicts of interest in research were primarily written by Marcus Hobbs, another Duke chemistry professor and administrator who conducted research funded by the American Tobacco Company and Liggett & Myers. These figures are just a few examples of the intricate and lasting web of industry-university collaboration.

These profitable collaborations have continued with programs that purport to be counter to the tobacco industry. The Duke Center for Smoking Cessation was initially funded by the Philip Morris corporation with over $37 million dollars. Tobacco corporations’ donations to smoking cessation programs not only give them positive PR, but the programs’ individualizing focus—the smoker is supposed to educate themselves, become responsible, and choose treatment—also distracts attention from the corporations’ and their accomplices’ responsibilities for harm, which could be the basis for lawsuits, reparations, and bans. 

The tobacco industry can continue profiting from smoke-free policies, which permit the use of smokeless tobacco products, such as e-cigarettes, vapes, and chewing tobacco. When a rash of E-Cigarette/Vaping Associated Lung Injuries (EVALIs) swept the country in Fall 2019, Duke began to reconsider its policy. The Chronicle also released an article detailing the research funding Jed Rose, the director of the Duke Center for Smoking Cessation, was receiving from JUUL, and his stance against a proposed ban on e-cigarettes. (Rose has said he has no conflict of interest issues.) In February 2020, Duke changed the policy to tobacco-free, which prohibits the use of all tobacco on campus.

In light of debates around these policies, we ask: How should the Duke community reckon with the historical conditions that contributed to the development of the university in the form of wealth accumulated from the tobacco industry? Could the tobacco-free policy serve as a form of reparative justice for Duke’s complicity with the harms of the tobacco industry? Alternatively, could the tobacco-free policy hinder the possibilities for justice through depoliticizing the issue, individualizing blame for harm onto consumers, and diverting responsibility away from Duke and the tobacco industry?

The promoters of Duke’s tobacco-free policy have themselves been concerned with social justice, as they have worked to address how the policy might hurt groups on campus who are already the most marginalized: Duke staff, particularly grounds, housing, and dining workers. These are the campus groups most likely to use tobacco, and if they cannot quit, they may eventually be subject to disciplinary action. Compared to others on campus, these workers are more likely to be Black and to live in lower-income neighborhoods, which the tobacco industry has historically targeted

Given Duke’s long history of prioritizing profit and institutional self-interest over public health, we question Duke administrators’ claims to leadership on public health. In the age of COVID-19 and a tobacco-free campus, Duke’s policies could individualize blame for harm onto staff who do the essential work of keeping themselves and the wider Duke community safe and healthy. As an antidote to such individualizing, we should build relationships of solidarity with the people who work on our campus, especially those who have been made most vulnerable through the intertwining of the university with the tobacco industry. We can support Duke Workers United and join other efforts to organize labor unions and mutual aid in Duke and Durham. Let’s take Duke’s calls of “community responsibility” during the pandemic seriously by taking care of each other and holding those in power accountable. 

Caroline Petronis is a Trinity senior, B.A. Program II, Individualized Degree Program in Scientific Representation. Eli Meyerhoff, Ph.D., is Program Coordinator of the Social Movements Lab and Visiting Scholar at the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute.


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