Koop, Danos spar over tobacco: Former Surgeon General, Tuck Dean disagree over College investments

by Alex Shartsis | 11/26/97 6:00am

In November 1989 the Board of Trustees decided to divest from South Africa, because of apartheid. In 1993 the Board withdrew its investments from Hydro Quebec, a company which allegedly exploited Native Americans and damaged the environment.

Now some at the College are asking if having investments in the tobacco industry is any better.

It is widely known the College has investments in tobacco stocks, though College Director of Investments Jonathon King declined to give specific details, saying the College does not disclose holdings "as a matter of policy."

C. Everett Koop '37 -- the former U.S. Surgeon General and currently the senior scholar at the College's Koop Institute -- believes that Dartmouth should divest from tobacco stocks immediately. But others question whether such a move would ultimately be in the College's best interests.

Koop has been in the spotlight recently for his criticism of the tobacco settlement between cigarette producers and several state attorneys general. He and other experts in the field of medicine have said that owning stock in tobacco producing companies is immoral.

"Tobacco is a product manufactured for only one reason, and that is to addict people, and any socially responsible institution wouldn't participate in that," said former Assistant Surgeon General Michael McGinnis, Koop's deputy for several years.

However, owning stocks in tobacco can be a lucrative endeavor. Tobacco is "where the real growth is," Tuck Business School Dean Paul Danos said.

The Committee on Investor Responsibility last addressed the issue of Dartmouth's ownership of a piece of the tobacco industry in 1995, and it concluded that Dartmouth should not divest, according to King.

Danos questioned the practicality of divestment.

"Trying to parcel out all of the social effects is very hard, especially if it results in lower returns. There is no way you can sort for big organizations that are investing billions of dollars."

Koop has been trying to get teacher's pension plans to divest from tobacco stocks for quite some time.

"The teaching profession is immoral to tell their students that tobacco is harmful, and then depend on it for their own retirement," he said.

Members of the largest teacher pension plan have voted on this issue for the past two years, yet of those who participated this year, just 27 percent wanted to divest from tobacco -- up slightly from 22 percent last year, Koop said.

Although Danos does not consider ownership of tobacco stocks "an immoral thing per se," he added, "There is a line beyond which most of us wouldn't go. Where are you going to draw that line?"

Danos maintains that "if you want to be a purist, you must approach it from the legal point of view. Nicotine is certainly not the only thing people are abusing. Exactly the same thing could be said about the alcohol industry."

Koop, however, disagrees. "Tobacco is bad for everyone who uses it, whereas alcohol is only abused by a few," said Koop. "Tobacco companies have always been sleazy about their disclosure."

As for a solution to the problem, Koop said, "Gradual divestment, I think, would be applauded by both alumni and students."

Danos stressed, "We can do whatever we want; we're a private institution." He also cautioned that Dartmouth "can't take a stand on everything."

Were momentum to build for the College to divest from tobacco stocks, any final decision would rest with the Board of Trustees.