Recently we came across an article published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), commenting on the Chair of the Board of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Barbara McDougall, and her role as a tobacco industry executive for Imperial Tobacco. (This is somewhat old news as this article was published in July, but we did not comment on it then, and thought it worth a blog posting.) Despite McDougall’s resignation from Imperial Tobacco after her role there became widely publicized, these CMAJ authors still call for her resignation from the IDRC, claiming that her resignation from Imperial Tobacco does not sufficiently remove the conflict of interest. They state that “Given [McDougall’s] role on the Board of Imperial Tobacco, one can only conclude that tobacco control will no longer be a priority for IDRC and the Government of Canada.” Apparently CMAJ thinks that a single person is capable of subverting a large organization and an entire country’s tobacco reduction plans.
While conflicts of interest of course should be acknowledged, McDougall’s role at Imperial Tobacco was no secret; she had been there since 2004 (three years prior to her joining IDRC), and biographies found through a Google search have her role at Imperial Tobacco listed. Not knowing the intimate details of the situation I can’t comment on whether or not she was appropriately transparent at the time of her appointment, but in the response from the IDRC with respect to McDougall, it defends its record and states that it “has processes in place to ensure that no single member’s views or interests prevail over what are ultimately decisions by the Board as a whole.” They also clarify that McDougall’s role was “as an independent, non-executive director of Imperial Tobacco.” An editorial by the Globe & Mail also defends the Board’s “exemplary track record” and calls for it to resist pressure to fire McDougall.
Regardless of all this, however, McDougall resigned from Imperial Tobacco, thus removing the conflict of interest. The insistence from the anti-tobacco faction and the CMAJ authors that this conflict of interest has not been removed despite her resignation speaks to the prevailing attitude that once tainted by tobacco money, you will always be tainted by tobacco money. This is no different for researchers working in the field of tobacco; once a tobacco grant has been accepted, you will be publicly expelled from the tobacco control clique, rejected from their conferences and sometimes even entire journals.
It appears that McDougall’s situation became publicized firstly because the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pulled $5 million in anti-tobacco funding from the IDRC, stating McDougall’s role at Imperial Tobacco as the reason, and secondly, because the FCTC guidelines exclude the tobacco industry from health groups like the IDRC, because they influence health policy. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was simply throwing its weight around with respect to the funding. Certainly if you’re wealthy enough, it’s easy to force your ideology onto others and punish those who don’t conform. And as for the FCTC, the IDRC states that McDougall’s appointment had “predated the adoption of the FCTC Article 5.3 Guidelines,” and reiterates its support for the FCTC and its dedication to following its guidelines. As we already know, the FCTC – what with its anti-THR and prohibitionist agenda – is unlikely to be anywhere near as successful in reducing smoking-related deaths as THR promotion would be. The IDRC’s public dedication to the FCTC is even more chilling when we consider that because of the loss of funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, there was a re-allocation of funds from other areas in the IDRC to the anti-tobacco area. No doubt these other areas were likely to have more of an impact in the developing world than any tobacco control program would have.
The indignant cries to have McDougall resign reek of a kind of McCarthyism, and are just a distraction from the real goal of reducing smoking-related disease in the developing world. To think that having McDougall step down from the Chair of the IDRC will somehow have an impact on smoking-related disease is laughable. With the IDRC acknowledging their intentions to follow the FCTC guidelines (and the FCTC’s unwavering dedication to the abstinence-only viewpoint), we already know how unsuccessful they are going to be at accomplishing that goal.