Tobacco money for medical research: point taken and missed

If the Osama bin Laden Foundation or the Adoph Hitler Memorial Fund offered to support your scientific research -- no strings attached -- would you take the money? Remember, you are hoping to do good with your work, say, investigate a new cancer drug or a model of the cardiovascular system. Pure science but with possibly beneficial applications. And the funders delivered the money and never interfered. Not once. Would you be willing to get in bed with these guys, just to that extent? Probably most US scientists today wouldn't. Probably. But the Boston Globe reported yesterday and the New YorkTimes last week, that some very reputable scientists at some prestigious research institutions have taken money from the tobacco industry, the public health equivalent of Hitler or OBL:

Philip Morris USA, which makes Marlboro and other top-selling cigarette lines, gave grants to scientists at Boston University, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Massachusetts, company spokesman David M. Sylvia said Friday.

The research supported by the company touched on conditions such as heart disease and cancer that are linked to smoking. The grants given by the Philip Morris External Research Program were not used to develop new tobacco products or refine existing brands, but they may have helped the company rehabilitate its public image.

When accepting Philip Morris money, the researchers had to promise to disclose the source of their funding in scientific publications, Sylvia said, and the company, in turn, promised not to meddle in the research. (Boston Globe)

Universities do plenty of research on weapons of death and destruction funded by all sorts of disreputable people. So why single out tobacco? They probably shouldn't be especially targeted, except for this. If you work in medicine or public health, especially cancer research, taking Big Tobacco money is the moral equivalent of taking money from the Hitler Fund for Racial Harmony or the Osama bin Laden Foundation for Non-violence.

The cigarette money at Boston University, $3.99 million from Philip Morris in the last decade, was first reported by the campus newspaper (kudos to these students for the scoop) and then acknowledged by the Provost of the Medical Campus, Karen Antman. Her response?

"We adhere to the highest ethical conduct in research and pursue funding from a variety of sources for unrestricted medical research," Antman said in the statement. "Our research is conducted and the results are assessed against the standard benchmarks that apply to any research."

Talk about missing the point.

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but they may have helped the company rehabilitate its public image.

Someone needs to explain this to Provost Antman (tangentially, Antman is a great superhero/villain name), using small words. Perhaps "you are doing PR for Cancersticks, Inc." would make the point?

So where do you draw the line? Do you refuse funding from 'sin' industries such as tobacco, alcohol & gambling, or do you broaden that to refuse funding from any company that might be seeking to boost their public image, such as the drug companies?

(aside: Didn't Big Tobacco have to fund independent smoking-related research as part of the settlement?)

Could these researchers not find someone else to fund a study that involved tobacco related disease. And the results of the study where questioned by many in the medical community long before they found out that tobacco money was involved. There is no evidence that expensive scans will improve the survival rate for those afflicted with lung cancer. More study is definitely required.

Pete: The LDCT story is a bit more complicated. USPSTF has already moved from against to no recommendation and the I-ELCAP data are fairly persuasive. However this is a long a intricate story which has been going on for some time. The cigarette support is also complex as Henschke (I assume you refer to her) is against Philip Morris's position. The controversey hinges on two items: the putative (and in my view unlikely) claim that all tumors picked up by LDCT are either pseudodisease or so aggressive that no Rx works; and that size doesn't matter regarding detection. There is good evidence against both of these claims. The very poor paper from Patz/Goodman's group has been canceled out by Wisnievsky's paper on SEER survival and the additional evidence from Mayo that only a quarter or so of the LDCT detected nodules have doubling times longer than 400 days; and the reanalyses of the MLP cxr studies by Flehinger; Golova; Strouss (3 studies), not to mention the analysis of Wisnievsky or Yankelevitz (can't remember which) on doubling times in the MLP. Moreover it is highly unlikely the current RCT by NCI will solve this. As was pointed out to me by a colleague, there have been 8 RCTs on mammography and they are still arguing about it. Meanwhile Mass General has started LDCT screening outside of a clinical trial. The docs are voting with their feet.

None of this has to do with the BU or other tobacco supported studies, however.

Your phrase "Pure science but with possibly beneficial applications" jumped out at me.

Call me cynical, but after having given probably (well...maybe) thousands over my lifetime to the Cancer Society - I am a bit disillusioned with them! In all that time and with all the money we all have given, you would think they might have come up with a cure.

If Big Tobacco wants to waste their cash for these people to mess about with 'pure science' and 'possibly beneficial' results they are welcome to, in my opinion.

I would prefer we all gave the money to scientist(s) who were more firmly fixed on a return for the investment!

Yeah, yeah, before you all jump all over me, I know they have 'made advances' - but surely by now we should be way further ahead?

One point: If a commitment to fund research has to be renewed periodically, can any researcher really say that funding comes with no strings attached. For instance, a particular project is several years along and involves, in addition to the lead researcher, a team of subordinates. If the project suddenly loses funding (and, by this, I mean that funding is not renewed), the lives of several academics and their significant others, children, etc., can be knocked for a bit of a loop. I do not mean, necessarily, that they would face bankruptcy if funding were not renewed, merely that a good deal of stress would be injected into their lives.

Under those circumstances, it becomes obvious that some strings, albeit somewhat invisible, are tied to the funding. And, the lead researcher is probably aware of the necessity to, if not please, at least not grossly offend the sponsoring organization.

Good post Revere, the issue of Tobacco funding is one that needs to be addressed by the biomedical science community. It's clear from the debate surrounding recent attacks on Edythe London at UCLA that tobacco funding is viewed as very suspect by a lot of people who are otherwise very supportive of biomedical research, and it's also clear that for a lot of people, myself included, the absence of strings does not make it OK.

I also think that the NY Times suggestion that a purpose of this funding is to help Tobacco companies improve their image and appease regulators, I suspect that in the past decade this has been the main purpose of the funding.

The only way I can ever see accepting tobacco funds being moral for biomedical researchers is if those funds were taken by the government as some form of special tax and administered by a board that was totally independent of the tobacco companies.

I think the comparison between Tobacco funding and funding from Nazis or OBL is a little extreme, perhaps the following scenario is more appropriate for ScienceBlogs.

An announcement is made that a well known developmental or evolutionary biologist, a scientist with an excellent research record and who has been openly critical of Intelligent Design, has accepted funding from the Discovery Institute. There is no indication of any strings being attached and the research project looks good, and the biologist concerned claims that he/she still thinks that ID is not a valid scientific theory.

I suspect that the reaction on ScienceBlogs would be to at the very least question the biologist's judgment, and in all likelihood many would condemn him/her for lending the DI some scientific credibility.

I think this is how we should view tobacco funding.

I expect to get flamed for this, but I'm going to put out this contrarian view just for argument's sakes.

First I don't smoke; no one in my family smokes; I react badly to secondhand cigarettes so I'm very glad when they banned smoking in public places etc. I have no connections with and have no financial interest in any way shape or form from the tobacco industry. I would much rather we live in a world where tobacco does not exist, period. Just to get all that out of the way.

We all agree that tobacco is a dangerous substance that kills people. Is it moral to take their money? This to me is somewhat (not totally) equivalent to asking whether it is moral to tax the industry heavily and spend that tax money on the public good.

Sure they are out to 'buy' their way into some good PR, which industry doesn't want that? But on this discussion right now we are not judging the morality of the tobacco industry, but the morality of scientists who take funding from them.

Last that I heard, smoking is still a legal activity albeit restricted to certain environments. So is the production and sale of cigarettes. Note that as a result a whole lot of retailers and the whole supply chain that operates to support retail operations, are making money out of tobacco as well. Do we use the same moral judgment against these retailers as we appear to be doing against scientists?

If the NYTimes were to complain about retailers making money out of tobacco, I daresay the retailers' response would be that they are in the business to make money by selling legal products according to the law, and that the bigger issue of whether it's moral to 'support' the tobacco industry should be left to society as a whole to decide. If we decide No, we should ban it. If we allow it to be sold legally, then we should not expect certain sectors to shoulder the burden that society refuses to shoulder. In other words, retailers should not be held to higher standards than the rest of society.

In a similar way, why should scientists be held to higher standards that we refuse to impose on the rest of society? Please don't give me that stuff about them being more educated or whatever and should know better. It is patronizing to believe that there are significant numbers of adults in modern societies who do not know the detrimental effects of smoking. They do not need the extra help of scientists refusing research money, just so the tobacco industry cannot buy themselves a 'good' name.

Having said all that, I do have some concern about this funding issue; it has to do with whether there really ARE no strings attached. Sure there may be no strings attached to any individual piece of research, but the question is what kind of research are they funding? Is there a bias in selection?

Assuming there is bias, do we have a way of countering that? We already require scientists to declare any conflicts of interest, and I assume that such funding attached to any particular finding would be obvious to anyone who cares to look. Is that sufficient safeguard? What if the tobacco sponsorship becomes a big source of funding for scientists? Is that going to affect the independence of the pursuit of knowledge, in that research related to the harmful effects of tobacco is now far less likely to get funded?

That IS a big issue, that again the scientific community as a whole should address, but not IMHO individual scientists or institutions. The profession should debate the rules, and stand guard over the independence of research, but it isn't the moral duty of individual scientists to (again) shoulder what the profession as a whole will not.

Actually I was making a much simpler point than the ethical one. The ethics of this are difficult (e.g., do you use valid scientific results from unethical experiments like the ones done by the Nazis) and not straightforward. My point was more one of scientific reputation. If you take tobacco money and you do cancer research you have to expect your reputation and results to have a stain on them. Does this invalidate them? Not at all. Is it perhaps stupid? I think so.

Now, we're on the blame train, what about those pharmaceutical companies? They fund many of these studies against tobacco while steadily putting out their own product. It seems to me it behooves them to show tobacco as evil so they can sell their own form of nicotine. While I am not saying that tobacco is good in any form, I'm not losing sight that most of the studies on both sides have been questionably funded by parties with vested interests. Pharmaceutical companies are no more likely to be honest than tobacco companies. They both have their bottom line. Just because one makes medicine doesn't make those that run the company "good".

I say don't question one source of funding until you're ready to question another. Both parties are guilty of funding with vested interest. Each side has financial ties to each result. RWJF funds many smoking bans and studies and they are closely tied with Johnson and Johnson. Yep, vested interests all around...

Chyna: So are you saying don't question any source of funding?

Quite the opposite...question them all.

Chynia; Yes, I was sure that was what you would say. Now exactly what does it mean? How would you do that? This includes every paper that appears, right?

My point was more one of scientific reputation. If you take tobacco money and you do cancer research you have to expect your reputation and results to have a stain on them. Does this invalidate them? Not at all. Is it perhaps stupid? I think so.

So where do you come down on the research on two particular illicit drugs, cannabis and Ecstasy, which happen to feature strong advocates on both sides funding research? NIDA funded researchers are all just tools of the vast prohibitionist conspiracy and medical-utility advocates are just looking to Trojan in recreational de-criminalization. So where does that leave the researchers? All "stupid"?……

Pretty much, sad to say. Science is completely funded it seems by vested interests. How can you hold tobacco accountable for funding pro-smoking studies if you don't hold pharma related for anti-smoking studies? Why is it only immoral if it's tobacco? One could look at the arguement that if tobacco companies are to keep their current customers for longer (since smoking is decreasing) it's in their best interest to find cures or treatments for tobacco related illnesses. I would say it's no less immoral for tobacco to fund studies than it is for Johnson and Johnson to. One could even say that the tobacco industry OWES this funding for the damage they've done. Yes, they are still making the product, but it IS a legal product with a large customer base. There's no company that doesn't put it's bottom line first, and as was said above, why hold tobacco MORE accountable?

I know the original point of your question is if we question everything, when do we trust? We don't. I don't have the answers, I wish I did. But we're not stupid people. Do the math yourself. In the age of the internet it's quite easy to familiarize yourself with how science works, at your own pace. Use common sense. Tobacco companies said smoking was safe, but really, what idiot believes when you inhale SMOKE it won't hurt you? Obviously it's not safe, people get sick from smoking. Anti-tobacco companies say NO amount is safe, but what idiot doesn't understand the poison is in the dose? It can't be that deadly or we'd have lost the entire baby boomer generation by now. What's the answer? I don't know, but it's questions like this that might lead us to a better way of initiating checks and balances on research funding.

1 - The U.S. military occupation of Japan did not prosecute members of Unit 731 which did experiments on Chinese prisoners. Furthermore, it used the results and maybe even collaborated with them after WWII.

2 - Then should researchers accept money from exploitive firms like Wal-Mart or Nike, which have questionable work practices?

It its interesting that you begin your article by deliberately associating Big Tobacco with Hitler and OBL. There are those who would say, if people are still allowed to say things, that you've put the shoe on the wrong foot.

The MSA money (all of it 'tobacco money' - originating from smokers, but channelled by Big T) provides massive state revenues which, in turn, result in large-scale state expenditure on "good" projects. Nobody has ever explained at which point those funds become 'untainted'.

On the other hand, to find sources of openly-admitted hands-on political interference, all you have to do is google "RWJF tobacco" or "RWJF alcohol".

Big Science, meanwhile, has becose Small Science, lost in the crossfire of market-place corporate politics and all-at-sea in terms of public credibility.

By Blaggarde (not verified) on 03 Apr 2008 #permalink