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Medical Research by the Marlboro Man

Monday lecture looks at links between med schools and the tobacco industry


Alan Blum, a University of Alabama professor and director of its Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society, will speak at MED on Monday, December 8, on Universities and the Tobacco Industry: True Opponents or Silent Partners?

Think medical schools and tobacco companies have nothing in common? The relationship’s real, and it’s complicated. Medical schools need money to fund life-saving research. Tobacco companies, whose products cause lethal diseases, including cancer, heart disease, and stroke, donate part of their profits to universities to pay for that research.

Alan Blum, director of the Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society at the University of Alabama, will visit the School of Medicine on Monday, December 8, to discuss Universities and the Tobacco Industry: True Opponents or Silent Partners? BU Today spoke to Blum about the ethics of medical schools taking money from the tobacco industry.

BU Today: What’s the relationship between the smoking industry and universities?
Blum: The smoking industry, much like the Mafia, couldn’t exist if it wasn’t for more legitimate businesses supporting it. The New York Times, for instance, was a big supporter of the tobacco industry for many years. It only banned cigarette advertising in 1999, even after the surgeon general’s warning wiped out most cigarette advertising anyway.

Universities have been major recipients of all sorts of funds from the tobacco industry every day, largely in the form of research grants. Universities invest in tobacco companies in their endowments and their pension funds. Tobacco stocks have been extremely profitable. Philip Morris was the single most profitable stock on the New York Stock Exchange over a 50-year period from 1957. You also have endowed lectureships and recruitment of college students to work for their companies. In 2008, Philip Morris is the biggest recruiter on U.S. college campuses.

This is 44 years after the 1964 Report on Smoking and Health was released — the report to end all doubt about the dangers of smoking, and to start acting on it. But it’s as if we’re just beginning to act now. It’s really rather scary that we’ve not done as well as we could have done. The universities of America are not part of the effort to fight tobacco, and I don’t think universities believe that smoking is an issue they should take a public stance on.

What’s in it for the tobacco industry?
There’s one university that was exposed on the front page of the New York Times as not only taking lucrative grants from Philip Morris, but also allowing the company to vet their research articles and approve what got published. Now they’ve supposedly changed that, yet they haven’t decided not to take the money, but simply rewrote the rules about Philip Morris editing their articles. It’s also no secret that the president of this university sits on a board of a tobacco company.

The point is that it’s a partnership, and for a medical researcher to take money from a tobacco company, even in a time of recession, is like a detective taking money from the mob. It’s medical researchers lining up and begging for money from the tobacco industry. That’s the distinction. That’s what so obscene about this issue. I think that medical researchers who believe that the tobacco companies are legitimate businesses that should be funding medical research are sickening.

Do you think that the medical researchers feel that they’re taking this tainted money to do important research and that justifies it?

Absolutely. I think they’re rationalizing anything they want to. But in some instances, not only are the researchers taking the money, but they are not aware that their own research is being used by the tobacco industry to defend smoking.

There’s this casuistry, especially in the time of recession, that although you may not smoke or encourage smoking, you can still accept a legitimate grant to study science. But research funding from the tobacco industry is the definition of infinity. Now that they’ve admitted that smoking causes cancer — except in the cases in court where they don’t admit it — they’re part of the solution, not the problem. They’re not doing anything differently than they were doing 50 years ago, but now that they admit it causes cancer, it’s supposed to make them whole again. Really, it’s a disgrace and the tobacco industry is comprised of utter scoundrels.

You’ve also seen the compromise morally on the part of universities, researchers, advertising agencies, and media that will rationalize to say we don’t smoke, we hate tobacco, but it’s a free country.

It’s a matter of individual conscience. I have one set of values, and those who choose to apply for and take money from the tobacco industry have, in my opinion, an entirely different set of values. They’re probably in the driver’s seat in terms of how much money they’re bringing into their medical school. This is very valued because money is valued over anything in a medical school environment.

Do you believe that universities are putting adequate resources into fighting smoking?

No, absolutely not. There are no courses in medical schools about the dangers of smoking and there’s no continuity of care exercises. The medical schools treat the diseases caused by smoking and play no role in prevention. The public health schools love to get grants to study, but they’re not taking much more of a leadership position than the medical schools. There really isn’t much leadership in fighting smoking. It’s not an issue that is “sexy”; it’s an issue that supposedly everyone has heard about.

This whole lecture I’m giving should be unnecessary, because medical schools in 2008 should never accept money from these companies in this society. It’s hard to imagine we have individuals who are rewarded, not just by the tobacco industry, but also by their own institutions. The institutions obviously don’t care where the money is coming from, and they use this holier-than-thou argument that people like me can’t dictate morality. I’m saying this is obscene, and the only reason you’re doing it is for the money.

Universities and the Tobacco Industry: True Opponents or Silent Partners? will take place on Monday, December 8, at noon, at the School of Medicine, 80 East Concord St., Room L-112. The lecture is sponsored by the School of Public Health. A bus schedule to the BU Medical Campus can be found here.

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.


3 Comments on Medical Research by the Marlboro Man

  • Anonymous on 12.05.2008 at 1:57 pm


  • Anonymous on 12.06.2008 at 1:01 am

    Funny how things like religion in public schools and gay marriages are banned, but something that actually kills people isn’t illegal. Seriously a sick world we live in.

  • Anonymous on 10.07.2009 at 3:05 pm


    Very informative

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