Bridging the Gap Between the Private Sector and Academia for Public Good: A Gender Perspective
I recently attended Boston University (BU) School of Public Health’s Dean Symposium, “Private-Sector Collaborations with Academic Public Health: Opportunities and Challenges.” The topic is one that I personally and professionally grappled with in the past. I, like too many in traditional tobacco control and academia, initially rejected engagement with any industry. All the while, my peers and I struggled to overcome barriers to funding, innovation through science and technology, and the strength of collaborative problem-solving. My position has since evolved.
At the Foundation, we are redirecting capital from the private sector to support innovation in science and technology, reduce harm from smoking and tobacco production, and save lives. My work at the Foundation involves analyzing tobacco production and use, smoking cessation, and harm reduction from a gender perspective, and ensuring that Foundation partners and grantees are held to the same standard. Gender-specific work is a nonnegotiable pillar of our strategic plan.
Over time, the global arc of smoking has peaked for men, but smoking among women has decreased at a much slower pace. Additionally, there are concerns regarding the generational gender gap among smokers. Some countries, such as France and Bulgaria, have seen a complete reversal in the relative prevalence of smoking among boys and girls. If this trend continues, smoking could become a female-dominant activity with dire consequences. While traditional government-led public health measures have been successful and remain the cornerstone of tobacco control, progress has been siloed, much too slow, and mostly devoid of a critical gender lens.
At the BU Symposium, Dr. Dariush Mozzafarian, Dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, stated, “The fundamental role academics play in the private sector is to make sure that what is being done in policy is based on sound science.” In addition to providing scientific accountability, academics have the power to influence research and policy priorities and shape the conversation around public health issues. The inevitable transformation of the tobacco industry and the rapidly evolving harm reduction space offer a new opportunity for academics to steer the narrative. They can do so in a way that drives visibility and resources to the health and well-being of the overlooked, underresearched women smokers and women who are vulnerable to secondhand smoke.
To fight the progression of the feminization of smoking, the Foundation will build partnerships across all sectors and fund research purposefully seeking to understand, address, and communicate divergent sex- and gender-based health impacts and needs. Additionally, Foundation-funded researchers and Centers of Excellence will strive to identify the limitations of smoking cessation and harm reduction products currently available on the market. They will, accordingly, contribute to the development of technologies that are accessible and responsive to the different physiological, social, and economic needs of women and men. We will also empower investors to responsibly steer the industry transformation by prioritizing companies that embrace the advancement of women, develop products that benefit women, and strive to improve women’s role in the value chain.
Additionally, we understand that the inevitable reduced global demand for tobacco and resulting economic disruption will not be felt uniformly across all demographics; rather, it will disproportionately affect socially and economically vulnerable populations. In our Agricultural Transformation Initiative, we will partner with stakeholders from diverse sectors in policy development, economic diversification, and research and development. We will strongly urge them to consider in their work the social, economic, and institutional disadvantages that undergird women’s marginalization and limited agricultural productivity. Economic analytical tools and technology development must be gender inclusive in order to sustainably lift smallholder farmers out of poverty.
To ensure a progressive Foundation-wide application of a gender perspective, the Foundation’s formal Gender Policy will require all grantees to collect sex-disaggregated data, integrate gender aspects into research design, and maintain a gender balance in their team composition.
“Science is a social practice. Values are embedded in what we do,” Professor Amy Fairchild, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and a professor in the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University, said in her speech at the BU Symposium. My personal values are embedded in everything that I do. My commitment to strengthening collaborations can be summarized in an email that I wrote to an organization of women leaders in tobacco control after an article I submitted to their publication regarding the need for women’s leadership and gendered economic analysis in tobacco control was rejected because of my affiliation with the Foundation:
I joined the Foundation with a single mission – to elevate the voices of women as they fight for the rights of those impacted by both tobacco smoking and production. I’m extremely passionate about addressing the increasingly dire situation of women and girls in tobacco-dependent countries. I was thrilled to work with [women from your organization] whose work I have long admired and from which I have drawn inspiration. Regardless of whether the article is published or not, I do hope that we can find a way to work together (now or in the future). I believe that I have a lot to contribute and am determined to make a positive, considerable impact.
Yes, the Foundation receives funding from PMI. I plan to leverage our resources to the best of my ability to tackle those issues that the rest of the world seems to have forgotten and advocate for the women who do not have resources of their own. In fact, I’m currently developing a formal Gender Policy for the Foundation, which will be mainstreamed into our research agenda focused on ending smoking and addressing the needs of smallholder farmers.
At the Foundation, our individual and collective values are evidenced by our unwavering commitment to independent research, science, advocacy, and collaboration. As President of the Foundation, Derek Yach, stated at the BU Symposium, “All sources of funding bring biases and baggage. How we deal with them to do public good is the challenge and opportunity.”