Woman who spoke up loses tobacco cash appeal

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A woman who was fired for criticising the acceptance of tobacco sponsorship by her employers, the Medical Research Council (MRC), has lost her appeal against dismissal.

Last November Mary Rice, then head of public communications for the MRC, spoke out in a newspaper about the council's acceptance of pounds 147,000 from British American Tobacco (BAT), to fund research on whether nicotine can help older people at risk of Alzheimer's disease.

She said it "would be seriously damaging to the MRC's reputation as an impartial source of scientific knowledge. I put this in writing but was overruled". Within days she was sacked.

This week a London industrial tribunal upheld the dismissal, ruling that Mrs Rice "had so far stepped outside her prescribed role as set out in her job description and as followed by her hitherto, as to call into doubt her future ability to work".

The MRC's decision to seek funding from BAT was criticised by scientists, including some funded by the council. Mrs Rice said: "The sight of the first organisation in the world to warn of the link between smoking and cancer, touting for tobacco money, is unedifying."

Yesterday, the MRC said it welcomed the decision by the tribunal but insisted that the case "had no bearing on her right, or that of any employee, to express opinions or offer advice internally on corporate policy or decisions".

Mrs Rice is unimpressed. "Why should [the tobacco industry] spend millions ... buying a Formula One team when they have been able to buy the good name of the MRC for a mere pounds 147,000?"

Studies in Holland have suggested that smokers are more liable than non-smokers to develop Alzheimer's disease.