Kelley Lee's work calls for more astute collective health governance in an increasingly globalized world where diseases jump borders with relative ease
Diseases which have shown themselves to readily cross national borders, such as the Ebola virus, Zika, avian influenza, SARS, HIV and AIDS have over recent decades reminded us of the need to see health from an increasingly global terms. Kelley Lee is an expert on global health and her work is dedicated to building better institutions that enable collective action to meet such health risks.
“My interest in globalization undoubtedly stems from growing up in Canada amid many different cultures, and perhaps with struggling at times with identity,” says the SFU Faculty of Health Sciences professor and Tier I Canada Research Chair in Global Health Governance. “This led me to study International Relations and then travel the world to understand how people with profoundly different interests and outlooks can come together to solve shared problems.”
Lee joined the University in 2011, bringing with her a long list of accomplishments accrued during her over two decades at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Britain's national school of public health and one of the world’s leading institutions for research and graduate education in global health. During her tenure there, she co-authored several major studies on World Health Organization (WHO) reform, led the establishment of the WHO Collaborating Centre on Global Change and Health, chaired the WHO Resource Group on Globalization, Trade and Health, and established the first university courses on globalization and health. Many of her former students now occupy senior positions in key global health institutions.
Her recent research focus on the globalization of the tobacco industry has been called “particularly influential” by the authors of Fifty Key Thinkers on Globalization. She led an international effort to make public an important collection of tobacco industry documents and has received funding from the US National Cancer Institute since 2002 to analyze the industry. In collaboration with researchers in the UK, US and Australia, painstaking analyses by Lee and colleagues have produced dozens of papers on Big Tobacco’s tactics to resist tobacco control, from ensuring the adoption of industry-favouring trade and investment agreements, funding biased research, complicity in cigarette smuggling, and the diversion of attention to diseases not directly related to tobacco, such as HIV/AIDS and liver disease.
In 2015, Lee co-authored a study which presented evidence from over 250 internal documents to reveal industry attempts to make smoking more acceptable to those of the Muslim faith. Tobacco control advocates were made to appear fundamentalist and fanatical and industry lawyers even helped develop theological arguments in favour of smoking.
Further, Lee has also written about the environmental harms generated by the powerful US$744 billion industry. In 2016, she co-authored a paper that showed how the industry counters concerns about deforestation in the developing world by funding junk science, government lobbying, and making inflated claims about its reforestation efforts. And in a paper on tobacco product waste, she called attention to the toxic chemicals leaching into soil and waterways from the billions of cigarette butts discarded each year. Her team has put forth model legislation to hold tobacco companies legally accountable for their failure to address its environmental impacts, including their failure to institute take back schemes for butts akin to the disposal of batteries, motor oil and household paints.
“Challenging Big Tobacco can feel daunting, but progress is being made,” says Lee. “In Canada, we’ve so far accepted restrictions on how tobacco can be marketed, where smoking is permitted, points of sale, and soon hopefully, even plain packaging. I see my job as generating evidence to support national and worldwide collective action against a deadly industry that is harming us all.”
Dr. Kelley Lee is trained in International Relations and Public Administration with a focus on international political economy. She spent over twenty years at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, initially analyzing the role of the UN in health. She has authored over 100 peer reviewed papers, 50 book chapters and 13 books including Globalization and Health, An introduction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), The World Health Organization (Routledge, 2008), Global Health and International Relations (Polity Press with Colin McInnes, 2012), and Case Studies on Corporations and Global Health Governance (Rowman and Littlefield International with Nora Kenworthy and Ross MacKenzie, 2016). She joined the SFU Faculty of Health Sciences in 2011 as Associate Dean, Research and Director of Global Health. She is a Fellow of the Faculty of Public Health, Royal College of Physicians and Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences.
Q & A with Kelley Lee
How is your research making an impact on lives?
My research is about designing innovative institutions that protect and promote health in an interconnected world. Global health governance can seem like a nebulous term, but the practical value of my research concerns how we can better organize ourselves in an increasingly globalized world: what institutions do we need to make better decisions and take effective action on shared problems such as environmental change, disease outbreaks and harmful industries.
What advice would you give your younger self regarding the challenges you've faced as a researcher?
A research career is full of challenges: continually coming up with new ideas, chasing funding, getting published and so on. Undoubtedly, my best work has been produced when working in teams and my best advice would be to surround yourself with good people. You might not always get along, there may even be conflict, but there are far more opportunities to learn and grow in a group environment. I have been fortunate enough to work with some remarkable people in terms of their intellect, work ethic and passion. We bring different skills to the table, spark ideas in one another and critique each other’s work. As a result, I have had a far more productive, impactful and exciting career as a researcher than working on my own.
Putting one’s work out into the world often requires a leap of courage. Where do you find your courage?
My research on global tobacco control means directly challenging the interests of a powerful industry with vast resources and extensive political influence worldwide. Despite its products killing 6 million people each year, much of the industry’s power remains hidden and my research has revealed the nature and extent of that power. My role is to generate scientifically rigorous, peer-reviewed evidence that stands up to industry denials or dismissal. I don’t see this work as courageous–the public health advocates around the world who use my research to hold the industry to fuller account and change policy are the ones with true courage.