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Big Tobacco Swindle

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Big Tobacco Swindle

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A federal court of appeals recently upheld a lower court's 2006 decision that found the tobacco industry guilty of racketeering and fraud. The House of Representatives has already voted to give the F.D.A. powers to regulate tobacco products, and the Senate is considering a similar vote. It's time for universities such as the University of California to wake up and cut their research ties with Big Tobacco, which has long used university research results to defraud the public.

A Rogue Industry's Links with Academia
It's high time for the University of California to sever its links with the tobacco industry
Friday, June 5, 2009

IT'S CALLED the “UCLA study” and it’s notorious in medical circles for its counterintuitive conclusion that second-hand tobacco smoke does NOT result in lung cancer and coronary heart disease. For years, top-notch researchers at the University of California have argued that the state’s largest and foremost public university should protect its reputation by prohibiting funds from the tobacco industry for research of the sort that has made the 2003 UCLA study a poster child for anti-tobacco activism.

ANYONE WHO DOUBTS that it is inappropriate for a university, public or private, to accept research dollars from Big Tobacco needs to note a recent ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The unanimous judgment upheld an August 2006 verdict in which the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (R.I.C.O.) court – the same institution that has dealt with the Mafia – held major tobacco companies guilty of racketeering and fraud because they have a long history of suppressing crucial evidence to deny or downplay the addictive and harmful effects of smoking.

THE U.S. SENATE is now preparing to vote on legislation that would allow the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco products. The House of Representatives has already voted to empower the FDA to regulate tobacco, but whether or not the FDA’s oversight will help tackle the root of the problem – Big Tobacco’s deceitful manufacturing, marketing and sales activities – is wide open to question. After all, this is an industry with deep pockets indeed and the FDA’s instinct to “follow the money” is all too well known.

FOR CALIFORNIANS, HOWEVER, the big question is whether or not their premier university will finally succumb to public and judicial opinion that tobacco consumption in any form is harmful and that research that serves the parochial interests of tobacco companies is grossly unethical, unwise and manipulative.

SINCE 1995, THE UNIVERSITY of California has received about $29 million from companies that the university knows are associated with the tobacco industry for research, training and public service. Although that’s miniscule compared to the $4 billion or more that the university gets in total contracts and grants annually, it is deplorable nonetheless that one of the nation’s premier research universities is linked to Big Tobacco’s relentless conspiracy and fraud aimed at profiting from such practices as designing cigarettes that deliver addictive doses of nicotine and lying in court about the well-documented fact that cigarettes low in nicotine and tar are just as harmful to health as ones that are not.

THE NATURE OF THIS appalling conspiracy, whose very first element was the creation of a research fund for universities, can be viewed at the library of the University of California San Francisco (www.legacy.library.ucsf.edu). The library houses more than 50 million pages from 10 million documents that major tobacco companies used in their half-century of manufacturing, marketing, advertising and medical research. Those nefarious efforts continue to this day and will surely continue in the future unless a well-coordinated national public campaign takes on Big Tobacco, an unlikely scenario amid the worst economic meltdown in 50 years.

BESIDES THE R.I.C.O. COURT'S VERDICT, the U.S. government has alleged that Big Tobacco unlawfully conspired to “deceive the American public about the health effects of smoking,” according to a letter that California politician Cruz Bustamante wrote to the Regents of the University of California while he was the state’s lieutenant governor and on the UC Board of Regents in 2006. Bustamante noted in his letter that the findings of the UCLA Study “conflict with respected state and national studies that offer evidence of the strong correlation between second-hand smoke and lung cancer” and that the results of the $500,000 study had been successfully used to defeat an anti-smoking ordinance in Missouri. “My questions are: What is the damage to the University of California?” Bustamante asked his fellow UC Regents. “Does this hurt our state’s reputation and our scientific credibility? Does this study imply that we were once again duped by an industry that has spent decades misinforming the public of the health consequences of using their products?”

THE UCLA STUDY FIRST CAME to light in May 2003 when the British Medical Journal published a paper authored by the study’s investigator, UCLA epidemiologist James E. Enstrom, whose research has been funded by Philip Morris since 1992. Enstrom reported in his paper that an analysis of the mortality rates among 118,000 Californians from 1960 to 1998 showed no relationship between second-hand tobacco smoke and death, although there was some suggestive relationship with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Over the years, Enstrom has defiantly maintained the integrity of his scholarship and claimed that he is the victim of a three-year defamation campaign launched against him by a number of organizations and people, notably Stanton Glantz, a UCSF professor of medicine and who has known Enstrom since the late 1960s, when they were both graduate students at Stanford. Glantz has countered Enstrom’s allegation by pointing out that the UCLA Study contradicts virtually all the medical literature on the subject of passive smoking, including UCSF’s research that second-hand smoke kills as many as 53,000 people every year. What’s more, even the American Cancer Society, which had provided Enstrom with the 38-year mortality data, criticized his findings.

AGAINST THE BACKDROP of Big Tobacco’s historic fraud, in which the funding of academic research is a key element, it’s little wonder that a string of leading universities have declined to accept research money from the tobacco industry. These institutions span the gamut from Harvard, Columbia and Johns Hopkins – venerable institutions in the heart of tobacco country – to the universities of Washington, Arizona and North Carolina. In addition, a number of departments within UC campuses, such as the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and the UCSF Department of Medicine, have banned Big Tobacco research dollars.

CITING ACADEMIC FREEDOM, the regents of the University of California decided in September 2006 that individual UC campuses and their chancellors would be responsible for reviewing research proposals funded by Big Tobacco. The decision did not affect projects already existing at the time, such as a $6-million UCLA study funded by Philip Morris to investigate youth addiction to tobacco and a number of other studies underway at UC Berkeley, Davis, Santa Barbara and San Diego.

STRANGELY, THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA'S policy about academic freedom, contained in a manual on academic procedures, says not a word about grants or funding sources. The reason isn’t hard to find: Academic freedom is about speech, not money. The questions before the University of California once again is whether to continue its relationship with one of the biggest rogue industries in American business or sever it in light of the latest in a string of court verdicts against the Big Tobacco enterprise.

PERHAPS, IN DECIDING WHAT TO DO, the university might consider its Enlightenment-era motto, “Let There be Light,” and consider whether to keep it or change it in these economically troubled times to something like “Let There be Money” from whoever writes a check.