Tobacco on Trial in California

Regents tabled a decision on banning tobacco funding, but they may have done so without having all the information.
February 8, 2007

During  a meeting last month to discuss banning University of California researchers from taking support from tobacco companies, several members of the university's Board of Regents argued that such a ban would violate academic freedom and that it was unnecessary because the university already has a faculty code of conduct   to guard against the sort of corporate manipulation of science that proponents of the tobacco ban fear.

Jefferson Coombs, the alumni regent, said that passing the ban “would establish a dangerous precedent that threatens academic freedom," and would "convey a signal that we do not trust the judgment of our world-class academics, faculty and administrators at the University of California. There’s a reason why these codes of conduct are in place.”

Regent Sherry Lansing raised similar concerns, stating that because of the university system's existing code of conduct, which each campus carries out in its own way, “I believe that [professors] are able to do research without being corrupted.” Regent Judith Hopkinson voiced agreement with Lansing’s views.

But critics cite two pieces of evidence that they say belie assertions that the faculty code of conduct has guarded the university from the influence of the tobacco companies' agenda. Last August,   in a ruling that ended a multi-year federal racketeering and fraud lawsuit against nine tobacco companies, Judge Gladys Kessler criticized the companies for manipulating science to fit claims that tobacco is harmless.

In her final opinion, which ran over 1,700 pages, Kessler wrote that tobacco companies and law firms “identified ‘friendly’ scientific witnesses, subsidized them with grants from the Center for Tobacco Research and the Center for Indoor Air Research, paid them enormous fees, and often hid the relationship between those witnesses and the industry.” She specifically cited four projects managed by the tobacco companies to alter research questions on the health effects of second-hand smoke.

One researcher she singled out is James Enstrom, a cancer researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles, whose work was financed by the tobacco industry for a study he published in the British Medical Journal. Enstrom’s study analyzed a data subset that he asked for and received from the American Cancer Society.

Kessler’s finding of fact cites a June 1996 memo between Philip Morris executives discussing Enstrom’s work for Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds. Kessler writes that the executives noted that Enstrom’s work was “clearly litigation oriented” and should be “pursued, if at all, in the context of attorney work product.” Enstrom said that he does not understand how he ended up in the judge's ruling. "It's completely bogus to have inserted me into that trial," he said. "Publishing politically incorrect findings is not fraud."

The regents may not have read Kessler’s ruling, but in early September, four months before the regents' meeting, the American Cancer Society sent the California regents a letter charging Enstrom with misrepresenting scientific evidence to deny the harmful effects of smoking and second hand smoke.

Michael Thun, vice president for epidemiology at the American Cancer Society, said Enstrom is "an example of someone who is at one of the UC institutions and who was used by the tobacco industry through its funding.” Thun said that the society had collaborated with Enstrom on the study that he published in the British Medical Journal and had provided him with a data set.

But the society later withdrew support and cautioned Enstrom numerous times that the data would not provide useful information on second hand smoke. Enstrom ignored these warnings, Thun said, and never alerted the society that his funding came from Philip Morris.

“That paper was widely publicized by the tobacco companies to stop smoke-free laws,” said Thun. “I don’t know that he was corrupted, but he was used.” Thun said that the University of California's office of the president contacted cancer society officials for more information about the charges they raised, but only after the regents’ meeting.

Enstrom dismissed the accusations. “I did nothing wrong with the American Cancer Society and until they provide some information, then their charges are libelous,” he said in a telephone interview. 

Richard Blum, chairman of the university's Board of Regents, said he does not think that the regents had received the letter in advance of last month's meeting. “They should have had it,” he said, adding that he is concerned that the University of California's name is attached to research that Enstrom did for the tobacco companies.

“I can assure you that we will get to the bottom of it,” he said, adding that the regents will discuss the issue further in May. “Philip Morris used our name and Enstrom’s name to promote their products.”

Contacted about his comments at the regents’ meeting, Coombs said that he does not remember receiving the letter from the American Cancer Society. “My understanding is that the policies and code of conduct need to be followed,” he said. When asked about the finding of fact by Kessler, he said, "If there is proof, then I would want to have more information. Not that I am calling into question the conclusions of a federal judge.”

Jennifer Ward, a spokeswoman for the University of California's Office of the President, said that the provost sent a letter to the American Cancer Society after the regents' meeting asking for more information. The letter is signed by Wyatt R. Hume, UC  provost and and executive vice president for academic affairs. The letter asks if the cancer society is accusing Enstrom of scientific misconduct and, if so, to provide specific information supporting such a charge.

Ward also provided a letter from Robert C. Dynes, president of the UC system, in which he alerted the regents about the letter from the cancer society. The letter is dated January 31, the day Inside Higher Ed contacted the president's office to ask if the regents, in considering the ban on tobacco funding, were aware of the cancer society's letter.


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