Center tied to tobacco industry Indoor Air Research funding is questioned

May 17, 1998|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

When Johns Hopkins researcher Dr. Genevieve Matanoski published a study in 1995 suggesting that lung cancer cases attributed to secondhand smoke might actually result from diet or other factors, her paper acknowledged support from the Center for Indoor Air Research.

What she did not say was that the center, operated from modest offices near Baltimore-Washington International Airport, gets its money from the nation's four largest cigarette makers. More than 90 percent of the approximately $5 million the center gives out each year comes directly from the tobacco industry.

Tobacco industry documents and interviews suggest that the center is far from being an "independent, non-profit organization," as it is described in one brochure.

In fact, the center was created by industry lawyers and the Tobacco Institute in 1988 to blunt the attack of health advocates as evidence mounted that secondhand smoke causes lung cancer, heart disease and respiratory illness. All its grants must be approved by a board of directors made up of two top research executives from each of the four tobacco companies.

"Their true purpose was to generate disinformation," says Richard Daynard, a Boston law professor and chairman of the Tobacco Products Liability Project.

Dr. Michele Bloch, a Maryland physician and co-author of the American Public Health Association's policy urging health institutions not to accept money from cigarette makers, said the center's name is misleading. "The tobacco industry is corrupting science," she said. "Very few people know this is tobacco money."

Not so, say the center's staff and supporters, including Matanoski, a prominent epidemiologist at Hopkins' School of Public Health who has herself been awarded $2.3 million by the center since 1993 and serves on its scientific advisory board. In effect, they say that whatever purpose cigarette makers may have had in creating the center, they have been vigilant in guarding against industry bias.

"If they're willing to fund me, I take the money," said Matanoski, a member and former chairwoman of the Environmental Protection Agency's science advisory board. "If the scientist is honest, [tobacco industry funding] can be a big boost for research. CIAR is working in an area where there's very little money for research."

Max Eisenberg, 55, a chemist and former Maryland assistant secretary of environment, has served as executive director of the center since its creation. "I've tried my hardest to maintain the center as a premier organization that gets the best studies done by the best people," he says.

Debate has raged among public health specialists for years over whether scientists should accept tobacco industry money for research. Like the American Public Health Association, the American Medical Association advises health researchers not to take tobacco money and scientific journals not to publish tobacco-supported papers.

Few universities appear to have adopted such policies, partly out of concern for academic freedom. The Johns Hopkins University divested itself of tobacco stocks in 1991, declaring, "The university cannot teach that smoking is the most preventable cause of death, and at the same time profit from investing in tobacco-related stocks." But it has never banned tobacco industry research grants, and Hopkins' school of public health has been awarded $5.4 million from the indoor air center.

"The fact that the money comes from tobacco companies does make me uncomfortable," said Dr. Alfred Sommer, the school's dean. "Would I rather that the money came from NIH [the federal National Institutes of Health]? Yes. But NIH isn't supporting this kind of research."

'Sophisticated industry'

Sommer said that "as long as there's no meddling with results, I don't see a problem." But he added: "We've learned this is a very sophisticated industry. Have they outfoxed us here? Having learned what we've now learned, we'll go back and review these issues."

Most controversy to date has focused on the Council for Tobacco Research, created in 1954 with an industry pledge to sponsor research on the emerging links between smoking and disease. Instead, industry documents show, the council was used to maintain the appearance of corporate responsibility while tobacco companies hid what they knew about smoking hazards.

The battle over the Council for Tobacco Research culminated this month as New York's attorney general went to court to try to strip the tax-exempt status of the council and the Tobacco Institute, the industry's lobbying and public relations arm, both incorporated in New York. The petition charged that the two groups have "acted in a persistently fraudulent and illegal manner."

Last week, industry lawyers negotiating an end to Minnesota's tobacco lawsuit agreed to disband the Council for Tobacco Research as a condition of settlement.

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