Tobacco industry whistle-blower turns on his former benefactors Doctor is repentant, says he was duped

November 17, 1997|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

TYLER, Texas -- The tobacco industry has a lot of legal worries these days. But few of them are bigger than a 6-foot-5 physician named Gary L. Huber, who says he was bamboozled by the cigarette companies that financed his research.

Now he is prepared to pay them back, and then some.

Since August, the lanky, 58-year-old former college basketball player has emerged as that surprisingly rare character: the tobacco industry whistle-blower. Huber has become a central witness in Texas' lawsuit against the tobacco companies, and his quiet life as a diet doctor, health columnist and soccer dad in this town on the edge of the East Texas oil fields has been transformed.

His story suggests why, of the thousands of people who have worked for the big U.S. tobacco companies, only a dozen or so have surfaced publicly to testify against the industry. Cigarette makers have protected themselves by providing financial rewards for loyalty and legal trouble for defectors. And switching sides in the tobacco wars can be simply embarrassing, when a researcher has to explain why his views have suddenly changed.

Huber says that it was seeing previously secret tobacco industry documents this year that turned him against his longtime benefactors.

"My revelation over the past year, my road to Damascus, was finding out what they knew," Huber says. "They clearly knew smoking caused lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema. They knew it was addictive, and they knew it in the 1950s. They spent hundreds of millions of dollars on disinformation. And we spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to find out what they already knew."

By now, that's a familiar set of charges. But they have special force coming from a researcher long considered an industry friend. For added piquancy, Huber says tobacco industry lawyers have hinted that he should purge his files and tried to intimidate him into declining to testify.

If there is an undertone of repentance in Huber's fury, some in the anti-smoking ranks suggest that he has a lot to repent for. A pulmonary specialist, he took millions of tobacco research dollars over many years -- first as head of a major smoking research project at Harvard University; then in a brief and stormy tenure running a University of Kentucky tobacco and health institute financed by a cigarette tax; and with at least $1.4 million from two tobacco law firms over a decade after he moved to the University of Texas in 1985.

In a 1980 presentation to Philip Morris executives, 16 years after the surgeon general's landmark report on smoking and health, Huber minimized the hazards, accusing anti-smoking scientists of "deceit" and "distortion." He said only a "small minority" of smokers develop disease, and went further:

"At considerable risk of being harpooned by my colleagues in the scientific community, I am not afraid to ask, additionally, 'Is smoking beneficial to your health?' I believe that for some individuals, it may be beneficial."

Later, in articles widely cited by the tobacco companies, Huber declared that the dangers of secondhand smoke had been greatly exaggerated. His 1990 testimony on that topic in Australia, which he says he gave only under subpoena, was treated skeptically by the judge, who declared him "the least impressive" of the industry witnesses.

"Huber was generally thought of as one of the collection of scientists that the industry had lavishly funded over the years, so that they could trot them out on occasion to make favorable scientific statements," says Richard Daynard, director of the Tobacco Products Liability Project and longtime legal strategist for anti-smoking forces.

Huber admits that he was "naive beyond comprehension" but denies that he ever consciously distorted his scientific views to suit the industry. He insists that the tobacco money never directly increased his salary, though it sometimes freed him from other duties. Moreover, the work he directed at Harvard began at a time when tobacco money was not yet anathema among health researchers and was reviewed by a university panel to prevent industry influence.

Later, in Texas, Huber admits that he might have become a little too fond of the consulting money, which financed the scientific reading he loves. He says he regrets accepting industry funds, some of which he belatedly understands to have been hush money. He says that's why industry lawyers insisted on writing checks directly to him at Harvard and in Texas and having him sign the checks over to university programs.

Huber says he got "snookered, and snookered very badly."

Now, of course, the tobacco industry says it's the one getting snookered. Huber's agreements with the two tobacco law firms to review medical literature from 1985 to 1996 made him a "confidential consultant" who has no business consorting with the enemy, industry lawyers say.

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