Tobacco deal would disband controversial research center Organization that gives money for pollution study considered a tobacco front

November 14, 1998|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

The controversial Center for Indoor Air Research, which has given millions of tobacco industry dollars over the past decade to researchers at the Johns Hopkins University and many other institutions, would be disbanded under the tobacco settlement to be announced next week.

The Linthicum center was created by the tobacco industry in 1988 as part of a strategy to blunt growing public concern about the dangers of secondhand smoke, industry documents show.

With an annual budget of about $5 million, nearly all of it from the four biggest U.S. tobacco companies, the center has poured money into research on sources of indoor air pollution other than cigarettes and sponsored research to discredit links between secondhand smoke and disease.

Anti-smoking advocates say the center is a tobacco front whose backing taints research. Scientists who have received its grants, including Dr. Genevieve Matanoski, an eminent Hopkins epidemiologist who has received $2.3 million from the center, say researchers' integrity protects against any possible bias.

According to a draft posted yesterday on the Web site of the Arizona Republic newspaper, the tobacco settlement would disband the Center for Indoor Air Research, along with the Council for Tobacco Research and the Tobacco Institute, other longtime targets of industry critics. But in one of a number of apparent loopholes in the draft, the language appears to permit the industry to set up replacement organizations.

Max Eisenberg, the center's $254,000-a-year executive director, said yesterday it would be "premature" to comment.

The draft settlement also would ban tobacco billboards and merchandise bearing cigarette brand names, provide $1.45 billion for campaigns against youth smoking and pay as much as $200 billion over 25 years to states to compensate for Medicaid spending on tobacco-related illnesses. Maryland's share of the settlement would be $4 billion.

Some clauses in the draft have raised eyebrows among tobacco opponents. For example, one clause permits tobacco posters to be displayed not only in stadiums and shopping malls but also in "video game arcades," an odd feature for a deal ostensibly aimed at curbing youth smoking.

Another clause would permit the sale, after March 31, 2001, of packs containing fewer than 20 cigarettes. Such mini-packs could appeal to cash-poor teens.

Richard A. Daynard, a Boston law professor who heads the Tobacco Products Liability Project, said such measures discredit the agreement. "The whole thing is smoke and mirrors," he said.

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said the settlement may be flawed, but it should not be rejected out of hand.

"Could some of these restrictions be more airtight? Yes," Curran said. "But if necessary, we could go to court to enforce the spirit of the agreement."

The latest tobacco settlement proposal was negotiated between eight states and the major cigarette makers, who are expected to deliver it over the weekend to attorneys general in other states.

Those states, including Maryland, will have until Friday to decide whether to accept the agreement or take their lawsuits to trial.

Maryland is seen as one of a handful of states with relatively strong cases that may decide not to sign. Curran said he will consult with Gov. Parris N. Glendening, legislative leaders and public health experts next week before deciding whether to recommend settlement to the state Board of Public Works.

One source familiar with the negotiations said the tobacco industry sought to preserve the Center for Indoor Air Research, but the attorneys general insisted that it be disbanded.

"Anybody in 1988 who thought that the tobacco industry was interested in funding research with no strings attached was either remarkably credulous or remarkably self-deceptive," said Dr. James P. Keough, director of the occupational health project at the University of Maryland.

The American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association have had policies for years urging researchers not to accept tobacco industry money, citing the fact that smoking is the single largest preventable cause of death and disease. But nearly all universities, including Hopkins and the University of Maryland, have continued to allow professors to accept such money, citing the importance of academic freedom.

After a Sun article in May reported that the Hopkins School of Public Health had accepted $5.4 million in grants from the Center for Indoor Air Research, Dr. Alfred Sommer said the school's policy on tobacco-funded research would be reviewed.

He has since referred the matter to a committee, which intends to hold an open forum where faculty members and students can express their views, said Lisbeth Pettengill, a spokeswoman for the school of public health.

Pub Date: 11/14/98

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