Tobacco funds raise ethical quandary

Geoffrey Ziezulewicz

With a Philip Morris USA grant, University researcher Dr. Jordan Holtzman is examining why smokers get heart disease.

Although tobacco industry grants provide only a small fraction of sponsored research dollars at the University, that research has posed an ethical dilemma on numerous fronts throughout academic institutions in the United States.

Officials at different universities expressed concern that taking tobacco money for research goes against the tenets of medicine. It also poses a conflict of interest question, they said, because of fears the companies will try to influence research outcomes in their favor.

Philip Morris USA awarded approximately $257,000 to Holtzman in fiscal year 2001, said Edward Wink, associate vice president of sponsored projects at the University. The funding will end in June.

The University receives $55.6 million in nongovernmental research funding, according to documents Wink provided.

According to University documents, tobacco companies awarded three other grants totaling $21,000 in previous years. The other projects have been completed.

Tobacco companies funding university research is not a new phenomenon, University epidemiology professor Jean Forster said. Tobacco-funded research became an issue at research universities in the early 1990s, she said. Since then, she said, the amount of research funded by tobacco companies has decreased.

“Before, it wasn’t frowned upon to take their money,” she said.

The ethical debate was made apparent in December 2003 when media reports indicated The Ohio State University would use a $6 million gift from Lorillard Tobacco Co. to study the effects of pollution and smoking on the heart and lungs.

Robert Crane, a clinical professor of family medicine at The Ohio State University, is on the state of Ohio’s tobacco settlement board and disagrees with tobacco companies funding research.

“The tobacco companies don’t give money for no reason,” Crane said. “The tobacco companies are the antithesis of health, and medical schools cannot be in bed with them. It degrades our reputation and the research findings.”

Stan Glantz, co-author of the book “The Cigarette Papers,” which documented and chronicled the tobacco industry’s actions and internal policies in the last 50 years, said the industry’s track record of funding scientific research is spotty.

For years, tobacco companies have funded and used research to say cigarettes aren’t harmful or nicotine isn’t addictive, Glantz said.

“You have a very sophisticated industry that manipulates data,” Glantz said.

Glantz also said tobacco-funded research in the past has engaged in “fact shaving,” in which final reports omit unfavorable facts.

But a Philip Morris USA official said the corporation encourages publication from any research it funds, whether positive or negative.

Philip Morris USA attempts to fund research aimed at reducing the harm produced by smoking, said Jennifer Golisch, media affairs manager at the corporation.

“We agree that there is no safe cigarette,” she said. “We have a commitment to continuously researching and developing new technologies that have the potential to reduce harm associated with smoking.”

Golisch would not say how much Philip Morris USA contributes to research activities.

Many anti-smoking nonprofit organizations have rules in place that disqualify researchers from receiving the organization’s grant money if they are also working with tobacco money, said Andrea Mowery, marketing and communications director for the Minnesota Partnership for Action Against Tobacco.

The American Cancer Society announced earlier this year that, starting in 2005, it will not fund any research at any institution that also receives funding from a tobacco company.

But organizations such as the partnership and the American Cancer Society might restrict researchers’ academic freedom, said John Finnegan, associate dean for academic affairs at the University’s School of Public Health.

“If you allow an outside nonprofit to decide who the enemy du jour is, where will the line be drawn?” Finnegan said.

A black-and-white approach to research funding oversimplifies the issue, he said.

“Some would like to frame this as a straight ‘good guy’ versus ‘bad guy’ issue,” Finnegan said. “It isn’t.”

Finnegan also said the University has sound research disclosure and conflict-of-interest policies to deal with ethical concerns. A peer-review process is also in place to check for shoddy, interest-laden research, Finnegan said.

“In the long run, you are guaranteed the research isn’t fudged,” he said. “Your guarantee is the peer-review process.”

Holtzman said he has done this sort of research for a long time, and other researchers would notice if he produced fraudulent findings.

He said receiving Philip Morris USA funding, which will expire this summer, is like using money from the tobacco settlement.

“It’s still the same source, and (Philip Morris USA is) not bugging me,” Holtzman said.

Taking Philip Morris USA’s money is OK, Holtzman said, because he keeps his research priorities straight.

“It would be a mistake not to take money as long as you don’t prostitute yourself,” he said. “I don’t think saying smoking causes atherosclerosis prostitutes myself.”