Nick Greiner on smoking and his tobacco job

My University has awarded former NSW premier Nick Greiner an honorary Doctor of Business (honoris causa) during a ceremony held in New York on  8 October, presided over by the University’s Vice-Chancellor and university President, Professor Mark Scott AO. 

“Across business and politics, Nick’s achievements are remarkable,” said Professor Scott. “Throughout his illustrious career, he has served the nation and helped the community through his work in policy and his environmental efforts. He continues to influence the next generation of leaders, the future of business and the important relationship between Australia and the United States.”

The University of Sydney’s website noted that “Mr Greiner’s achievements in business over the last 30 years have been significant. He has served as Chair or Deputy Chair of organisations including Harper & Row (Australasia), Bradken, Citigroup (Australia), Coles Myer Ltd, Rothschild (Australia), Stockland Trust, QBE Insurance and Castle Harlan Australian Mezzanine. In addition, he was Chairman of Infrastructure NSW and the European Australian Business Council.”

Significant in its absence here is that Greiner was also a board member and chair of the tobacco company WD & HO Wills (later amalgamated with Rothmans to become British American Tobacco Australia – BATA).

Greiner’s own website includes his BATA role, so it seems inconceivable that the University was unaware of this and has deliberately air-brushed Greiner’s tobacco history from its decision and communications.

In 2003, I led a group of academics and health and medical students in protesting the Greiner appointment, then chairman of BATA, to chair Sydney University’s graduate school of government. One senior paediatrician was so incensed he threatened to resign if the appointment went ahead.  I persuaded the University Senate to overturn the appointment. They agreed with me and Greiner resigned from the role. I wrote a detailed account of how this occurred as a case study in public health advocacy at the end of this paper in the BMJ’s Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

At the time, the then University Chancellor Kim Santow AO wrote to me that Griener’s appointment had nothing to do with his tobacco industry role but was all about his distinguished career in politics and public administration. This was a version of the Jeckyll and Hyde defense: the upstanding citizen by day, who strenuously denies his evening persona has any relevance to his overall reputation.

In 1982, Sydney University was the world’s first University to formally adopt a policy whereby neither the university, nor any staff member or student could accept any form of support, grant or scholarship from a tobacco company. This was subsequently strengthened in amendments. Careers fairs at the University have long excluded tobacco companies from pitching employment to students. Universities around the world have followed suit, including Harvard and the London School of Economics.

When Nicola Roxon, the former Australian Health Minister and Attorney General was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws in 2019, the then Vice Chancellor Michael Spence AC noted that:

“the honour was also a fitting continuation of the University’s role in tobacco control. The University of Sydney has a long history of engagement in tobacco control and was the world’s first university to implement a policy preventing staff and students from accepting grants from tobacco companies. This has been emulated by nearly all Australian universities and many others around the world.

At the University of Sydney, we share Ms Roxon’s genuine desire to build a better, healthier future for the world and we are so proud when our world-class research is used by policymakers to bring about real change”

Greiner’s parting shot at the University in 2003 was to say that “his departure points to broader problems in the university, including mismanagement.”

“It’s the ultimate sort of inmates-in-charge-of-the-asylum situation and I just didn’t think it was worth the hassle” he said.

To my knowledge, Greiner has never expressed a syllable of regret about his role with BATA. This is important. History records many prominent people who have gone out of their way to express remorse and regret about dark periods or events in their past. Civil society has codified five steps for contrition that we expect people to exhibit before society turns the page:

Greiner openly admits he worked at the very peak of a tobacco company, with his eyes wide open. But he has never taken the next four steps. Draw your own conclusions.

It has been decades since any tobacco executive has been awarded a civic honour like an Order of Australia or knighthood. For such a thing to happen today would be like a rabid dog winning London Crufts dog show. The World Health Organisation’s historic Framework Convention on Tobacco Control has been ratified by 181 nations. Its Article 5.3 precludes governments from any engagement with the industry. Two in three of the tobacco industry’s most addicted, “loyal” smokers die from tobacco caused disease. There are light years between that toll and that attributed to any other industry.

Sydney University’s gesture to Greiner might simply be a case of failed corporate memory in a new administration. Perhaps there is no one on the present Senate which would have signed off on the award who is aware of the history. Or perhaps there is and they didn’t care.

But the omission of his tobacco links from the university statement suggests this was done in full awareness. This is very regrettable.