The Oxford Union has backed out of an offer by Imperial Tobacco to sponsor a debate on the morality of the tobacco industry following an investigation.

This follows outrage and unhappiness from speakers invited to oppose the tobacco industry. They contacted Cherwell as they were concerned about the nature of the sponsorship, the fact that the tobacco industry was targeting student communities, and the fact that they had not been immediately informed when invited to speak that the debate might have a sponsor from the tobacco industry.

Imperial Tobacco had originally proposed to sponsor the Union’s debate, ‘This house believes the tobacco industry is morally reprehensible’, scheduled for Thursday of 3rd Week.

In their invitation to Deborah Arnott, Chief Executive of health charity Action on Smoking and Health, the Union said they had “confirmed speakers from Imperial Tobacco and FOREST”, but neglected to mention their ongoing negotiations regarding sponsorship with the tobacco company.

Arnott commented, “I am deeply concerned about the misleading nature of the invitation I, and many  others, were sent by the Oxford Union inviting us to speak in the tobacco debate. It made no mention that Imperial Tobacco was planning to sponsor the event in return for the opportunity to set up a recruitment booth at the venue. It’s disgraceful that the Oxford Union should have tried to pull the wool over people’s eyes.”

She added, “It’s shameful that it was only once the tobacco industry’s involvement was revealed that the Union accepted that such sponsorship was untenable.

This is an industry whose products kill when used as intended, and which has been judged in court in the US to have lied, misrepresented and deceived the public about the devastating health effects of smoking and environmental tobacco smoke to the public and the young people they avidly sought as ‘replacement’ smokers.

“Hundreds of children start smoking every day and 100,000 smokers die each year in the UK from this deadly addiction. The tobacco industry truly is morally reprehensible and I find it hard to believe that any students with half a brain could come to any other conclusion.”

In a statement, the Oxford Union commented, “The Oxford Union was approached by Imperial Tobacco with a proposal for sponsorship of a debate we were holding on the tobacco industry. As with all sponsorship proposals, The Standing Committee explored this possibility.

After consideration, the Union decided not to proceed with the discussions before a formal sponsorship agreement was made.

“All speakers who expressed an interest in speaking in the debate were informed of the possibility of sponsorship.”

The Union emphasised in their comment that “a formal sponsorship agreement” was not yet made at the time of speaking with Dr. Rees. The Union declined to commenton whether the Standing Committee are able – even if it is not common – to reject a sponsorship deal before  deciding to investigate further, as well as on whether all sponsors are allowed or obliged to have a recruitment stall at the event.

They likewise refused to comment on whether the decision to end negotiations was in any way due to the unhappiness of Dr Rees or other speakers regarding this idea of sponsorship by the tobacco industry.

Dr Vaughan Rees, a lecturer on Social and Behavioral Sciences at Harvard University, uncovered the sponsorship negotiations when he was called by the Union regarding the interest he expressed in the debate. He told Cherwell that “the status of sponsorship was unclear” following a second discussion by telephone.

Rees commented, “The concern from the tobacco control community is that the sponsorship was not made clear with the initial invitation, and that the sponsorship basically ‘bought’ a tobacco company an opportunity to engage directly with Oxford students.

“The Union initiated the second discussion to let me know that the plan for sponsorship had been abandoned and to see if I was willing to attend on that basis. I saw the Union’s plan to drop sponsorship more as a reflection of their desire to attract speakers who would not support a tobacco industry sponsored event, rather than a genuine response to concerns about taking money from a tobacco company (a policy held by Oxford University).”

Rees was also confused as to the terms on which sponsorship negotiations had ended, commenting, “As the call wrapped up, I told her that I intended to let others in the tobacco control and public health communities know what was going on, as deceptive industry behavior has been a concern for many of us.

“She asked that I wait because they were ‘still under contractual obligation’ with Imperial. I was incredulous because the whole discussion we had been having was based on the notion that she had abandoned sponsorship. When I challenged her on this, she said the decision had just been made in the past hour following a discussion with Imperial. I don’t know if they just needed time to formalise the plan to drop sponsorship, or whether they were trying to see if I would bite after hearing that no industry money would be involved.

“In my opinion, the Oxford Union was operating in such a manner as to limit the information they shared with invitees in order to favour the interests of a tobacco company. 

“The Oxford Union seems to be oblivious to the irony of their own rather reprehensible actions in light of their motion that the tobacco industry is morally reprehensible.” 

Dr Rees also expressed concern for the content of the debate, commenting, “The nature of the debate itself is deeply disturbing. The tobacco industry has a history of engaging in deceptive behaviour to further their interests while improving their public image. More recently, they have attempted to adopt principles of “corporate social responsibility” and I see this debate as part of that effort.

“Even a cursory consideration of social responsibility would confirm that an industry that knowingly sells a product that promotes addiction and kills consumers, has no claim for social responsibility. This industry is responsible for the deaths of some 100 million people in the twentieth century. Only a morally reprehensible industry would continue to operate with this knowledge.”

He continued to explain that “Oxford’s students will comprise a substantial proportion of future generation of leaders,” and therefore, “for obvious reasons, the tobacco industry is anxious to gain influence among these kinds of people”.

The Union and the University are separate institutions and therefore Oxford University did not comment. However, the University’s policy on tobacco is very clear, according to Arnott, who said, “The University’s ‘Committee to Review Donations’ does regard money that has come from tobacco as unacceptable.”

A spokesperson for Imperial Tobacco told Cherwell, “Imperial Tobacco, as a strong supporter of free speech, continuously seeks opportunities to promote quality, open debate in appropriate forums. As part of this, Imperial proposed an Oxford Union debate about the ethics of tobacco.

“Imperial offered to not only take part but also to meet the costs of the arranging the event. As discussions progressed, however, we were informed by the Union that invited tobacco control advocates were unhappy to take part in an event made possible with financial assistance from a tobacco company. As a result, the Union regrettably informed us that it would no longer be prepared to accept this assistance from Imperial.

“Imperial subsequently made it clear that it was prepared to take part in the proposed debate regardless of how event costs would be met. Ultimately, however, agreement could not be reached on our right to veto who would appear alongside the Imperial representative on our side of the debate and discussions ended. (We would never seek any restriction on the individuals invited to appear on the opposing side of the debate). As a supporter of quality debate we are pleased to note that, according to the Cherwell website, the event is still scheduled to take place – although it’s a pity that this will be without industry representation.”

Tobacco is the subject of the world’s first health treaty, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which binds 180 countries to “denormalise…activities described as ‘socially responsible’ by the tobacco industry”.