obacco funds school research

Chris Hamilton

In St. Paul, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Minnesota state attorneys are waging a courtroom battle with Big Tobacco over $1.77 billion in smoking-related medical costs. A recent salvo targeted the tobacco industry’s research foundation for crime or fraud.
And since 1956, the University has conducted millions of dollars worth of studies for The Council for Tobacco Research – USA, a defendant in the civil suit. The council’s 14-member scientific advisory board is funded by tobacco companies named in the suit. The council suspended all funding until negotiations for a national settlement with Congress are complete. A provision of the settlement calls for the foundation to be disbanded.
Tobacco critics charge the council with setting up two grant appropriation boards. They say there’s one independent board for basic science research, with which the University worked, and another informal board controlled by industry lawyers to support “special projects.”
The special projects deflect and manipulate scientific research linking smoking to health, according to memos included in 22,000 documents previously protected by Big Tobacco attorney-client privilege.
In December, Ramsey County District Judge Kenneth Fitzpatrick released the documents held by the Liggett Group, which turned state’s evidence to avoid litigation. He said the attorney privilege shield could not be used since it advances “a conspiracy of silence and suppression of scientific research.” On Wednesday, tobacco attorneys cited Fitzpatrick’s decision as one reason to relieve him from the case.
In court, the credibility of the University’s 44 council-sponsored grants and projects were never questioned. Most of the projects had nothing to do with linking smoking to health. They relied more on basic research of many diseases on the molecular and cellular level.
“The Council for Tobacco Research, as far as I’m concerned, is an organization which was given money by the tobacco companies to do basic medical research,” said Robert McKinnell, a genetics professor who’s received about $170,000 from the council to conduct research to reduce cancer in frog cells. “I don’t think the money is any more tainted with tobacco than a Ford Foundation grant is tainted by Ford automobiles.”
However, tobacco foes charge that while the basic research is solid, it’s a public relations ploy intended to prolong the debate on whether smoking causes disease. Others contend the council made it a point to support research blaming other factors for smoking related diseases. Some University faculty and administrators also question the ethical implications of a cancer researcher taking any money from tobacco companies.
“It’s some dilemma because it is viewed that the money is somewhat tainted,” said Edith Leyasmeyer, dean of the School of Public Health.

A “conspiracy”
Negative attitudes about the credibility of CTR-sponsored research come from recent revelations about the set-up of “special projects” and “special accounts.” For 10 years, the council fought the release of the documents. The exposure of another 39,000 documents is currently under debate in St. Paul. A decision could come today.
State Attorney General Skip Humphrey wrote of the new documents last week, “When Congress and the American public see the pervasiveness of the fraud and conspiracy, they will demand action to truly protect kids from addiction and disease without giving this outlaw industry the special immunity and protection it so desperately seeks.”
Internal industry memos show a history of lawyer-managed research dating back to the creation of the council in 1954. The council was organized by the public relations firm Hill and Knowlton soon after Readers Digest reported “Cancer by the Carton,” which connected smoking and cancer.
The industry responded with its “Frank Statement,” published in newspapers and magazines nationwide. Tobacco companies promised to find the “truth” behind smoking and health problems. One recent council report estimated more than $300 million has been spent over the years on supporting research.
“(CTR) was set up as an industry shield’ in 1954,” wrote an unnamed Philip Morris executive in a memo. “It is extremely important to show that the industry continue to spend their dollars on research to show that we don’t agree that the case against smoking is closed.”
Mark Gottlieb, an attorney for Northeastern University’s Tobacco Products Liability Project, has been monitoring the council. Members of his anti-tobacco group testified against the industry before Congress last month.
“The conspiracy began in 1954,” he said. “They had to do something because the evidence was very damaging. They needed to set up a means to satisfy consumers that tobacco companies would look out for customers’ health. They assembled an impressive group of scientists. But when it came to biological studies that could damage them, it was bumped up to the lawyers.”
The council maintains lung cancer is not solely caused by smoking. And James Glenn, chief executive officer and chairman of the council, two weeks ago testified in defense of his organization’s findings. “Direct causal relationship has not been established,” he said. He added the foundation’s purpose is to understand smoking and health issues.
Tobacco lawyers pointed out CTR-sponsored research has been cited numerous times in U.S. Surgeon General reports on smoking and health. A 1961 study said a type of lung cancer has a relationship to smoking. They also said council findings established links between smoking and early-onset heart disease and low birth weight.
Glenn asserted the scientific independence and legitimacy of the council. “No sir, at no time was it controlled by lawyers,” Glenn said.
But some once-secret memos contradict Glenn’s testimony. And tobacco critics say the intent of the council’s research was to produce misleading studies, suppress true data and muddle the public’s understanding.
One memo exemplified the cozy relationship between Samuel Lehrer, a Tulane University medical researcher, and Timothy Finnegan, a New York-based tobacco attorney.
“Enclosed is a revised copy of our proposal reflecting the several suggestions you made,” wrote Lehrer to Finnegan. “Please let me know if all this meets with your approval and if so I will forward the approval to the Council for Tobacco Research.”
Big Tobacco distributed a statement last month addressing the lawyers’ relationships within CTR as natural. Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard and Brown and Williamson each have two representatives on the organization’s board of directors. All of these companies have been or are defendants in 37 different state suits including Minnesota’s.
It should “come as no surprise that the tobacco companies needed and sought the advice of lawyers, given the adversarial environment of the last four decades,” according to the press release.

CTR and U
Fourteen University researchers took more than $2.67 million in CTR grants from 1956 to today. The vast majority of this money came in the 1990s. The University as a whole accepted $312 million in research grants in 1997.
Lee Wattenberg, a lab medicine and pathology professor, sat on the council’s volunteer Scientific Advisory Board for three years in the early 1980s. From 1976 through 1979, he received $176,920 for cancer and enzyme research. He said his own research was never influenced by the industry.
While at CTR, he said everything his board oversaw was handled properly and no pressure was ever put upon him to approve certain grants. He added the scientists were of the highest caliber.
“What else was done I simply don’t know,” Wattenberg said. “The problem with the board was the members would see the conventional grants and that was done pretty straight forward. They had a contracts program and I don’t know how much the members of the board knew about that because it was handled somewhat differently.
“They had, I think, other (special projects) as well. I have no idea what their biases were but some of them did not come through the regular review process,” Wattenberg said.
Contacted University CTR grant recipients said they went through the Scientific Advisory Board.
Most researchers, like Ryoko Kuriyama in cell biology, exclaimed with pride their research has “nothing to do with tobacco.” In fact, no school research program since 1972 even mentions tobacco or smoking.
Gottlieb said the council purposefully funds basic science programs without direct causation between smoking and disease. He went on to say it’s a public relations move so the industry can claim it spends a great deal of money on research and then say, “Gosh darn it, we just can’t find a link.”
Wettenberg said he questions the actual prestige tobacco companies gain by supporting research.
“It’s like a murderer giving money to the Red Cross,” he said. “You get some brownie points, but not many.”
He added while the organization might be funding some decent science, CTR is not funding the kind of research it was founded to tackle.
“Scientists that sort of played into that may have been doing so due to a need for funding dollars or a naivete about tobacco companies and that’s where you have an ethical problem,” Gottlieb said.
McKinnel said he doesn’t see it that way. Preaching nonsmoking to his students is an essential part of his curriculum and he wouldn’t take money directly from a tobacco advocacy group. But he said the council has nothing to do with tobacco. To him, it’s all about biomedical science.
And besides, McKinnel said, the foundation gives him control over his research spending he can’t get from the National Institutes of Health.
“They were sweet, sweet, sweet,” he said of the CTR.

The other smoking research
During the trial, tobacco attorneys used council-sponsored University research as examples of quality scientific work.
It’s this kind of publicity other smoking and health researchers at the University, who do not take CTR grants, fear tarnishes their findings’ reputations.
“It’s possible peers would regard the research as suspect,” said Stephen Hecht, a professor of cancer prevention who develops the link between second-hand smoke to cancer with NIH money. “I think when you’re funded by the CTR, you put yourself in the position for possible censorship.” He added he wouldn’t accept money from the tobacco industry.
“Oh, that’s bullshit,” said Ronald Jemmerson, a microbiology professor who used council grants for anti-body research. “The money is acceptable and I don’t see how it could damage my reputation.” He added everyone benefits from tobacco money since taxes collected from cigarette sales go toward everything from roads to the NIH.
But non-council funded researchers are still skeptical of the tobacco companies. This was amplified last year when industry lawyers subpoenaed current University smoking research. In preparation for the trial, Big Tobacco wanted to look at studies done on the effects of smoking.
Coincidentally, Dorsey and Whitney lawyers, who also represent the University, served the subpoena. Mark Rotenberg, head University attorney, solved the problem by seeking help elsewhere.
Mark Miller, then in the University’s Office of General Counsel and now with his own law firm, negotiated with the industry lawyers at the request of faculty. “We said we were going to make a stand,” he said. He added he was almost certain the request didn’t include council research.
University officials said the dealings were very businesslike, but administrators insisted on maintaining the faculty’s academic freedom and right to pursue research. The negotiations concluded in May 1997 with the release of already published reports only.
Phyllis Pirie, a professor in epidemiology, passed on her department’s displeasure with the request. She looks into the effects of smoking prevention programs on young adults. Her research will be used to strengthen anti-smoking campaigns.
“I wouldn’t take money from tobacco,” she said. “But then again, I don’t think they’d want to give me any.”