A February 9 Los Angeles Times article about University of California, Los Angeles professor Edythe London taking a $6 million grant from Philip Morris to study the brains of child smokers and monkeys addicted to nicotine once again raises questions about the appropriateness of university researchers accepting tobacco industry funding. Philip Morris denied that they have a stake in this particular project, but the denial had little credibility since the company no doubt will benefit from understanding more about youth smoking and nicotine addiction. After all, the future of their business depends on these two topics. Still, we wonder why any person curious enough to be engaged in scientific research isn't also curious enough to find out what's in it for Philip Morris before they accept the funds? These days, the answer is as close as your computer.
Edythe London and UCLA may not have wanted to know (and after all, $6 million in grant money could stop a lot of people from wanting to know a lot of things), but I wanted to find out what worries Philip Morris so much that they pour such sums of money and tremendous effort into building relationships with prominent academics and universities, so I searched the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library using terms like "academic freedom," "ethics in research," and "data integrity," all terms found in tobacco industry documents that discuss the importance of academic funding.
The Answers Are Easy to Find, but You Have to Want to See Them
One of the first documents I found containing the term "academic freedom" was a 1986 Tobacco Institute memo about how the industry worked to undermine the 1986 Surgeon General's report, "The Health Consequences of Involuntary Smoking," which officially informed the public for the first time that secondhand smoke causes disease in nonsmokers. The memo says,
... We prepared in anticipation of this event [the report's release] ... the monograph, "Tobacco Smoke
and the Nonsmoker: Scientific Integrity at The Crossroads" ... With that booklet, and a formal request to Department of Health and Human Services for an investigation of incidents of misrepresentation of scientific fact, violation of academic freedom, and censorship, it was our strategy to turn the debate away from the science and toward these other issues.
The mentioned booklet, produced by the Tobacco Institute, assailed the scientific and policy-making establishments for failing to accept the tobacco industry's claim that the jury was still out on whether secondhand smoke is harmful. In it, the Tobacco Institute cast scientists holding that viewpoint as victims of a campaign to silence them for holding a minority view. The industry raised the "academic freedom" argument at this crucial time to distract attention from the official government declaration that the science was finally clear about the hazards of secondhand tobacco smoke.
To the tobacco industry, then, "academic freedom" referred to the right to voice viewpoints that had been officially dismissed by the mainstream scientific and medical establishments.
Philip Morris (PM) documents were even more revealing about the company's fears with regard to academic isolation. A 1998 paper called "Preliminary Thoughts Regarding Concepts for the Worldwide Regulatory Affairs Department ... Academic Freedom Issue Team" states,
At present Philip Morris has a limited public credibility as a manufacturer and marketer of ... cigarettes. ... This development has been driven by a negative perception of the [company's] positions on [smoking and health] issues. As a result, the Industry is increasingly an exclusion from the scientific and regulatory discussions preceding regulatory proceedings around the world ... Research is often discredited on the very basis that the funds were provided by the Industry. This contributes to publication bias and limits the Industry's opportunities to contribute to quality science ...
"Publication bias" in this context means scientific conclusions that don't agree with Philip Morris' marketing goals, while "quality science" means scientific conclusions that do agree with their marketing goals.
Another PM think piece, titled "Academic Freedoms/Ethics in Science," reveals even more specific concerns about having their funding rejected:
Assertions of conflict of interest have been raised towards physicians, scientists, academics and others who have received funds from the tobacco industry or who are employed by the industry. These assertions ... or even the threat of such an assertion, have negatively affected the ability of the tobacco industry or its contractors to publish or present the results of research. This issue may adversely affect our ability to perform, to publish and to support research on important scientific and/or public health issues and consequently:
- Undermine the credibility of company testimony, position statements and regulatory responses, as well as the ability to market our products in some venues and the ability to smoke in some venues.
- Negatively affect the Company with regard to the scientific community in many ways: impedes corporate hiring; may increase the difficulty of keeping current employees; hinders participation at scientific meetings and interactions in a constructive manner with those in the scientific community; impedes the ability to obtain consultants and expert witnesses. It may also affect future activities, e.g., the acceptance of research results and corporate statements made to regulatory agencies.
Once again, it is instructive to note that for Philip Morris, these are all practical concerns about things that may impact the company's bottom line by affecting its ability to sell cigarettes unhindered. Notwithstanding the title of this essay, the company's pursuit of profit is far more pressing than any concern for ethics, the pursuit of truth for its own sake, or any of the other lofty goals usually associated with science and academic research.
Rejecting Tobacco Industry Funding: A Small Action that Has a Huge Impact
These, and many other documents like them, show clearly that when academics refuse tobacco industry money, it strikes deeply at the core of the tobacco business in many highly significant ways: It impedes the ability of tobacco companies to produce any science at all in their favor, and get it accepted by the mainstream scientific community. It makes it difficult for them to hire and keep employees. It turns tobacco companies, and their scientists, into pariahs in scientific circles. Such rejection results in a loss of credibility that in turn reduces the industry's power to influence legislators and regulators; it makes it harder for tobacco companies to get offered a seat at the table in governmental and nongovernmental negotiations about regulating their products; it also reduces their ability recruit influential third parties--like scientists or academic consultants--to speak for the industry in these times when the industry can't credibly speak for itself. It even impacts tobacco companies' ability to preserve the social acceptability of smoking and market their cigarettes.
That's a lot of very bad negatives. No wonder Philip Morris spends millions wooing academic institutions and scientists, and no wonder the sums PM gives are high enough to blind these scientists and institutions as to their effects. The consequences of PM losing their connections to academia are dire. These few internal documents alone, found in the course of one day, show that the damage done to the tobacco industry when academics and scientists reject their money is incalculable. Rejecting tobacco industry funding appears to be one of the most powerful public health actions that an individual or institution involved in research can possibly take.
So why take the money? Every time a researcher refuses tobacco industry money, the industry loses significant power and influence, plain and simple. Why wouldn't any decent public health researcher or institution want to use this power to make such a big difference?
Maybe because generating funds for the institution holds more prestige than truly advancing public health. And the lure of big money is something Philip Morris already knows inside out.