Hopkins may drop its investments tied to tobacco Trustees, noting incompatibility with health work, to vote today

February 22, 1991|By Patricia Meisol

The Johns Hopkins University, whose doctors treat thousands of cancer patients a year, is expected today to drop its investments in U.S. companies that manufacture cigarettes or tobacco products, long regarded as the leading cause of lung cancer.

The university's trustees are expected to approve a proposal this morning to sell off as much as $10 million in stock and bonds from companies whose returns have been among the highest on the stock market, including Philip Morris Inc., makers of cereal, coffee, cream cheese and Miller Beer, among other things -- including cigarettes.

The planned divestiture, prompted by the trustees' conclusion that owning stock in a tobacco company was incompatible with the work of Hopkins' health and medical schools, comes on the eve of local and international anti-smoking campaigns that the School of Hygiene and Public Health will mount as part of its 75th anniversary this spring.

Maryland leads the nation in cancer deaths, and researchers are now trying to find out why. State health officials have said they believe the two main causes of cancer are tobacco and alcohol. Tobacco-related cancers accounted for 40 percent of all deaths from cancer in the state from 1983-1987.

A trustee vote followed lobbying by the deans of medicine and public health as well as an appeal by a senior official from Philip Morris before a trustee committee last month.

The special subcommittee of trustees approved the plan yesterday, saying that holding tobacco stock was "incompatible with the university's mission to disseminate information on the treatment and prevention of disease and illness."

Full trustee approval is expected this morning.

In a statement yesterday, Philip Morris said the trustees' decisions should be based on prudent investing, "not on issues of social policy, which are often dictated by special interest groups."

The company's stock was the second-best performer in 1989 and in the last 10 years returned an average of 30 percent to shareholders. In addition to cigarettes, Philip Morris products include Kraft Foods, Maxwell House coffee, Entenmann's Bakery and many other brand-name goods.

To date, only a handful of other U.S. campuses have shunned tobacco company stocks, including Harvard University and the City University of New York.

The move affects $10 million worth of stock, according to Carl A. Latkin, a postdoctoral student in public health who was a member of a committee of students and faculty that brought the issue to university trustees last April.

"It seems to be a new era," Mr. Latkin said, noting that Hopkins in the past had taken a fiscally conservative approach to its investment portfolio.

He also said the changes came under new leadership, including Hopkins President William C. Richardson, who will be formally installed today as the campus's 11th president.

Dr. Richardson is a health policy expert.

Hopkins trustees, who include bankers, insurance executives, lawyers and investors, have not set a timetable for divesting the school of the stock. The board's chairman, Morris W. Offit, is president of his own investment management firm in Manhattan.

Yesterday, Dr. Sommer, the public health school dean, said the single biggest challenge facing experts is to educate the public.

"Smoking is far and away the major preventable cause of disease, disability and death in the United States. What are we going to do about it? What unique contribution can this school make toward solving that problem, not only here but also worldwide?" Dr. Sommer said.

The dean said that 1,000 people die every day from smoke-related causes and that researchers have estimated that half a billion of the 2 1/2 billion to 3 billion people alive today would die of such causes.

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