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Many top universities reject research funding “scam” from Big Tobacco

By David Schwartz
Published: January 9th, 2018

Philip Morris International is attempting to distribute nearly $1 billion for research on reducing smoking. But the grant is being called a “billion dollar bribe” of “blood money,” a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” a “smokescreen,” a “public relations stunt” and the “height of hypocrisy” by critics. The American Cancer Society has even called it a “new twist out of the tobacco industry’s deadly playbook.

The money in question has been promised by the tobacco giant to the newly formed Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, which is offering money for research on smoking cessation and alternative livelihoods for tobacco farmers.

But a number of top universities in the U.S. and U.K. have said they will not be taking any of the foundation’s money, saying it clashes with their ethics policies. Though Columbia University did not commit either way in a recent informal survey by The Wire, one scholar at Harvard’s prestigious T.H. Chan School of Public Health said the school is “discussing” whether it violates a 15-year-old policy of rejecting funding from the tobacco industry.

The new foundation and its funding source came to light in an email sent to nearly 350 leaders in global public health. It came from the foundation’s president, Derek Yach, targeting senior officials at the World Health Organization and other prominent health organizations.

While some public health leaders see any funding from a tobacco-funded foundation as an irreconcilable conflict of interest, others have reserved judgment. The World Health Organization (WHO) said it will “not partner with the Foundation” and has asked governments of all countries to do the same.

At Harvard, despite a 2002 policy prohibiting tobacco industry funding, the issue appears to have opened a can of worms at the school. “Faculty at the [Harvard School of Public Health] voted to reject all funding from the tobacco industry. We are now discussing whether support from this foundation falls under that ban,” said Daniel Wikler, a professor of ethics at HSPH and a recipient of Yach’s e-mail.

While Harvard remains steadfastly opposed to tobacco industry-funded research, the potential for public health benefits the foundation is promising may weigh in its favore. The university continues to “take a close look at the foundation,” Wikler said, because it “may well become a factor that would have to be taken into account in efforts to reduce (and perhaps eventually eliminate) the #1 risk factor worldwide for premature mortality. Thus they can’t be ignored, and ought to be studied closely.”

The foundation maintains that it has “fully insulated itself from the influence of the tobacco industry” and asked WHO to reconsider their disassociation with it. In The Wire’s survey, all the academic institutions targeted in the leaked emails with the exception of Harvard and Columbia said they would not be accepting funding linked to the tobacco industry and directed to their already established policies on conflict of interest and ethical research.

 “I would not apply for these funds because of the direct connection to [Philip Morris],” said Cheryl Healton, dean of New York University’s College of Global Public Health. However, she appears to be contradicted by two faculty members — David Abrams and Raymond Niaura — who in November sent a letter to Yach saying they would be willing to explore every avenue to address the challenges of smoking, “including this.”

At the University of Southern California, “USC researchers who received an e-mail announcing grants from the Smoke-Free Foundation have not applied for any of the funds and they do not intend to in the future. The university promotes the highest ethical standards for conducting research,” said Emily Gersema, USC’s media representative.

Michael Siegel of Boston University wrote a blog last month calling offer of grants a “scam.” He also received the foundation’s e-mail but said he “would not apply to the Smoke-Free Foundation because it is essentially a public relations ploy for PMI and it is not sincere about really trying to create a smoke-free world.”

Likewise, “we have not, and have no current plans, to pursue research funding directly from the tobacco industry,” said Heather Woolwine, media representative for the Medical University of South Carolina. “We plan to continue to pursue smoking cessation research with those other funding sources,” she says.

Three members of the Wellcome Trust were also on the mailing list but the trust says they have had a “long-held stance against supporting, or investing in, activities relating to the tobacco industry.” In October, they cancelled a booking made by the foundation to use the Wellcome Trust’s venue upon learning of the foundation’s links to the tobacco industry.

Ilona Kickbusch, director of the global health programme at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, has also said she has “no wish to be associated with tobacco companies and money in any way.” Many other organizations on the e-mail list offered similar responses.

Source: The Wire

Posted under: Industry-Sponsored Research Week

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