Cambridge may lose charity cash

Cancer group threatens to withdraw research millions over funding from tobacco company, reports Nicholas Timmins
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The Cancer Research Campaign, a leading medical charity, is threatening to withdraw funding from Cambridge University scientists in protest at the university's decision to take pounds 1.6m from British American Tobacco to found a chair in international relations.

The charity spends pounds 2.5m a year on research at the university. All existing contracts will be honoured, but the CRC's council is to meet next month and debate whether further work should be funded there.

The move would mark a further escalation in the war between doctors, medical scientists and the tobacco companies at a time when they are under pressure in the United States from President Clinton's decision to declare cigarettes a drug under the Food and Drugs legislation. It also follows protests over the weekend at a decision last year by a Medical Research Council unit to accept cash from BAT towards a research project on nicotine.

As a result of those protests, the MRC's council will re-consider the guidelines under which its units are encouraged to seek outside cash to support their work.

The Cancer Research Campaign's move, which could cost Cambridge more in lost funding than it has gained from BAT's endowment, follows bitter division at the university over whether to take the cash. The money was only accepted after a ballot of Cambridge's 3,300 dons last month, who voted by two to one to take it.

The BAT endowment was opposed at the time by Sir Keith Peters, the university's Professor of Physic and its most senior medical academic, who is also a member of the CRC's council. He said then: "Tobacco is a major health problem in all countries and control of cigarette-smoking is the single most powerful opportunity for preventive medicine in the developed world." Professor Gordon McVie, the CRC's director general, said at the time that he was "mightily displeased" that Cambridge had taken the money. Sir Walter Bodmer, head of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, called the decision to accept it "quite appalling".

Susan Osborne, the CRC's director of communications, said the issue had reached such a pitch that the charity had decided to hold a special council meeting next month to debate the issue and decide what action, if any, it should take.

It was not yet clear, she said, what decision would be made, but deciding not to fund work in Cambridge in future was "one option" to be debated.

With 100,000 premature deaths a year caused by smoking, tobacco funding "has to be a major issue to consider for an organisation like ours", she said. "We raise over pounds 50m a year and we have to consider the feelings of our supporters, many of whom are supporters because they have had cancer in the family, much of it due to tobacco-related damage."