The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Monday December 5th

Point: must they divest?

By holding tobacco stocks, some of the top medical schools are sending a deeply flawed message.

In training and preparing the nation's future doctors, U.S. medical schools share a vital responsibility. Paramount is the directive that doctors impose on themselves before beginning their practice: "First, do no harm."

But according to a recent report, some of the best medical schools in the country are choosing not to follow this command - and it's a downright blemish on their otherwise good names.

The report, compiled by researchers at the University of California-San Francisco's School of Nursing, states that a number of the best medical schools in the country still hold tobacco stocks as part of their endowment investments. The researchers found that, as of August, at least five of the top dozen medical schools in this year's U.S. News & World Report ranking are housed by universities that seemingly have not divested their tobacco stocks.

Even after weighing the variables and possible mitigating factors involved, these particular holdings still border on the absurd. Yale University, Cornell University and other top-tier medical schools that haven't divested should follow the lead of Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University and others that have.

There are cases in which stark practicality overcomes idealism. But this is not one of those cases. To encourage medical schools to divest their tobacco stocks would be to work toward eliminating a clear conflict of interest. Money might be a concern, but the power of the principle at stake here is enough to blow financial worries out of the water.

The divesters have found ways to fill the voids created when they dropped their tobacco investments - and they are still among the nation's elite.

There's no reason to think the laggards wouldn't be able to go in the same direction. Taking the plunge, getting rid of their tobacco stocks and possibly losing tobacco industry support in other ways might result in some temporary frustration for the holdouts - but avoiding short-term financial trouble is a poor excuse for continued inaction.

One argument against divestment involves the oft-cited idea of a "slippery slope." Proponents of this line of thought might contend that parting with tobacco stock holdings naturally could lead to divestment of stock in every company whose products have caused some social harm.

But this argument is invalid because a distinction certainly can be made between tobacco products and other goods. When people are moderate in their consumption of alcohol, they aren't doing irreparable damage to their bodies. Though they run the risk of getting into accidents when they drive their cars, the usefulness of a quick mode of transportation far outweighs that risk. But when they use cigarettes, cigars or chewing tobacco as they are intended to be used, the products become pure health hazards.

Urging the parent institutions of medical schools to divest isn't to demonize the tobacco industry. Although tobacco use has been responsible for countless deaths and countless dollars devoted to medical treatment, any call for an abrupt end to tobacco would be doing a disservice to the people who work hard within the industry and the farmers and growers who supply it.

There's nothing inherently wrong with buying stock in tobacco. But when there are plenty of other strong investment options available, it makes absolutely no sense for medical schools to support a major health threat.

Keeping or allowing for such holdings sends an inappropriate mixed message - one holding that it's acceptable for schools designed to train future healers to invest indirectly in one of the most evident social harms. It's a message that goes out to prospective and current medical students, the doctors who learned their trade at these schools, the patients who entrust their lives to those doctors and the public as a whole.

Often without even realizing it, people put their faith in medical schools to instill in their students the lessons and values that will enhance public health. The schools should do whatever they can to justify that faith.

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