Does Tobacco Money Taint Research?

U. of California urged to bar grants from cigarette companies. Both sides say academic values are at stake.
September 21, 2006

The University of California receives more than $4 billion a year in grants and contracts for research. On Wednesday, the Board of Regents took the unusual move of focusing on the source of less than $2 million of that total -- the tobacco industry.

One regent, Lieut. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, has called on his colleagues to consider barring the university system from accepting grants or contracts from the tobacco industry. Under the regents' rules, the issue could only be discussed Wednesday, so there was no vote -- and it's unclear that one could take place any time soon. But with the backing of anti-smoking groups and many professors, Bustamante has focused additional attention on the issue.

The argument he is making isn't that the smoking industry promotes harmful products (although he believes that), but that it uses university research to deceive the public to such an extent that the research harms the university system.

"The tobacco companies use academic research to promote misunderstanding and confusion," said Stanton A. Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California at San Francisco, who has worked with Bustamante on the proposal. "The university is about the seeking and discovery of truth -- and the protections of academic freedom are to protect that process," he said, not the right to get tobacco money. "Academic freedom isn't about money. It's about free speech and free thought."

On the other side, professors who receive tobacco money (and many who don't) say that any blanket ban on support from the industry would violate their academic freedom and set the university on an impossible and unwise path of picking which sources of funds are acceptable and which aren't.

"This is absolutely an academic freedom issue," said James E. Enstrom, a University of California at Los Angeles cancer researcher who takes tobacco money and has questioned the health impact of second-hand smoke. "The whole purpose of a university is to provide an environment where people can pursue the truth. To dictate what research is done at a university destroys the objectivity of a university."

The idea of rejecting tobacco money is not new. For several years, groups have encouraged universities to do so. And they have had the most success in medical schools and schools of public health. Harvard University's medical school adopted a policy in 2004. Some University of California units have banned tobacco grants. Berkeley's public health school, for example, has such a ban. Public health schools, of course, don't necessarily attract many people who want tobacco money -- and the push now is for a universitywide (or in the California case, for a systemwide) ban on tobacco funds.

In materials prepared for regents, Glantz outlined a series of reasons why he and others want a ban. Glantz, who has made a career of studying the history of the tobacco industry, traced the way companies have used research -- and the way that research has been used to hurt anti-smoking efforts.

Glantz scoffed at the idea that academic freedom would be endangered by a ban on tobacco funds. "There's a lot of talk on academic freedom, but this is about money. They are afraid that this could make it harder to get money from other unpopular sources," he said. Glantz acknowledged that there are many groups that fund university research -- most prominently the pharmaceutical industry -- that are seen by their critics as engaging in efforts to promote certain agendas. But Glantz said that there should be "a high bar" for taking an action against an industry.

He also noted that the pharmaceutical example shows how universities can regulate sources of funds from one industry without necessarily going down "the slippery slope" that critics fear in the tobacco policy. The University of California has strict rules (like most research universities) barring stock ownership in drug companies paying for professors' research. The university has been able to do that without applying the exact same rules to all research, he said, and it did so because of particular factors with testing the safety of new drugs.

"The whole slippery slope argument is fallacious. It says that intelligent people aren't capable of making decisions," he said.

The tobacco industry has not been very visible in the debate -- and some of the more outspoken critics of Glantz and Bustamante have been professors who take tobacco money or administrators who balance university budgets, whose motives are in turn questioned.

But the American Association of University Professors, not exactly an arm of Philip Morris, agrees with the slippery slope argument. The AAUP's committee on academic freedom has a policy on tobacco-financed research that says: "As a practical matter, the distinction between degrees of corporate misdeeds is too uncertain to sustain a clear, consistent and principled policy for determining which research funds to accept and which to reject. An institution which seeks to distinguish between and among different kinds of offensive corporate behavior presumes that it is competent to distinguish impermissible corporate wrongdoing from wrongful behavior that is acceptable. A university that starts down this path will find it difficult to resist demands that research bans should be imposed on other funding agencies that are seen as reckless or supportive of repellant programs."

The policy goes on to  say that in cases where the push for a ban on tobacco funds comes from professors, "our concerns about the restraints on academic freedom are not thereby lessened."

Enstrom, the UCLA professor, said he was a perfect example of why a tobacco ban is a matter of academic freedom. He has never smoked in his life and would never advise a loved one to do so. Some of his research, he said, has exposed just how dangerous it is to smoke. For example, he has written that the benefits of quitting smoking aren't as great as some have argued because so much damage is done while someone is smoking.

His research on second-hand smoke, however, has been much loved by the tobacco industry. Enstrom has written in the British Medical Journal that there is no documentation of increased mortality from smoking-related industries experienced by the non-smoking spouses of smokers. In his letter to fellow regents, Bustamante said that this study's findings "conflict with respected state and national studies" and that the results "were already used in the defeat of an anti-smoking ordinance in Missouri."

Enstrom said the question isn't whether his results conflict, but whether they are accurate. He said that his tobacco funders at no time tried to influence his work (and that he wouldn't have let them do so) and that the research in question had been going on for years prior to the tobacco industry providing funds. He said it was "absolutely unequivocally false" that he was influenced in any way by his funding source. Asked if he thinks the tobacco industry would have funded his work -- or would continue to do so -- if he started to find health issues associated with second-hand smoke, Enstrom said, "I like to think that they picked me because I'm an investigator willing to go into areas that are politically incorrect."

After stating that the funds were legitimate since they promoted good science and had no strings attached, Enstrom raised his voice when asked if he would take money for good, no-strings-attached research, from the Medellin drug cartel. "No. No. Those drugs are illegal, entirely illegal," he said. "Cigarettes are legal."

University of California administrators have noted that faculty leaders have expressed reservations about a tobacco funding ban, and Robert C. Dynes, president of the university system, has said that faculty members have a "fundamental right" to accept research funding from companies. He has also questioned the right of university system units to on their own ban such funding.

In materials distributed to the regents in advance of Wednesday's meeting, Dynes included a resolution passed last year by the Academic Senate. That resolution included much language that backs the right of faculty members to make their own decisions. "Restrictions on accepting research funding from particular sources on the basis of moral or political judgments about the fund source or the propriety of the research, or because of speculations about how the research results might be used," the resolution said, "interfere with an individual faculty members' freedom to define and carry out a research program."

However, Glantz also noted that the conclusion of the resolution criticizes units of the university system that bar specific grants from being used, but has a clause that adds "except as directed by the UC Board of Regents." So Glantz and supporters of a ban said that a ban approved by the regents would be entirely consistent with the resolution. Several regents on Wednesday said that they wanted more information on the research and faculty views. Glantz, Enstrom and others vow to provide plenty for the regents to review.


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