Public health faculty call for ban on research funding from tobacco companies

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo by Sam Hardgrove | Assistant Photo Editor

James Tielsch, a professor and chair of the department of global health, initially raised the issue of tobacco-funded research at a Faculty Senate meeting last month.

Faculty in the public health school are pushing the University to ban research funded by major tobacco companies, fearing that the funding will impede the independence of the school’s projects.

Public health professors in the Faculty Senate have introduced a resolution, which is currently under consideration by the senate’s executive committee, to bar anyone associated with GW from accepting tobacco money for research. Faculty say tobacco companies have a fraught history of using research funding to skew medical projects at universities away from the dangers of tobacco products.

James Tielsch, a professor and chair of the department of global health, initially raised the issue of tobacco-funded research at a Faculty Senate meeting last month. Without a University-wide policy on the subject, Tielsch said he would spearhead a resolution calling for a ban across schools.

“It is a statement about what we consider as a rejection of the attempt to manipulate research for the benefits of a select industry,” Tielsch said in an email. “It demonstrates we are committed to objective and independent research by our faculty, students and staff.”

As departments within universities, namely in health sciences, opt to reject funding from these companies, experts said faculty have begun to press for more sweeping university-wide bans across the country. The debate is part of a long-running ethical dispute in research fields, as faculty are often forced to walk a tightrope between receiving money for their projects and maintaining independence.

That debate has only grown in recent years as GW has turned to corporate research sponsors to fund major projects as federal grants grow more competitive.

At last month’s Faculty Senate meeting, Lynn Goldman, the dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health, said the school adopted an embargo on accepting money from tobacco companies as part of a partnership with the Truth Initiative, an anti-smoking nonprofit organization.

Some public health professors said the unofficial policy curbs ethical issues around accepting tobacco money, eliminating a perception that researchers endorse products proven to carry severe health risks.

Tielsch said a draft of the resolution has been completed and was submitted to the Faculty Senate’s executive committee two weeks ago. He said the tobacco industry has historically used research to misconstrue the risk of tobacco products and divert expert attention to other subjects.

“There is a long history of the tobacco industry funding researchers at academic institutions and at industry-founded institutes that is designed to cast doubt on legitimate research findings and to misdirect public health efforts on tobacco control,” he said.

Tielsch said the Truth Initiative, which supports policies designed to restrict tobacco use, is helping to develop the University-wide policy.

Leo Chalupa, the vice president for research, said that while the University does not have a broad policy on tobacco funding, rules with the Office of the Vice President for Research already allow officials to review funding sources when they could impact the independence of a professor or researcher. Officials may limit access to the results of sponsored research if there are ethical concerns, he said.

Chalupa said GW’s Office of Sponsored Projects reviews all sponsor agreements to make sure a sponsor does not influence a faculty member’s academic freedom.

“The University would not accept funding from any sponsor whose goals run contrary to the University’s code of conduct,” Chalupa said in an email.

He declined to say whether the University would consider changing its policies if a resolution were to pass.

The decision for health science departments at universities to distance themselves from the tobacco industry is not a recent trend. In 2004, 18 schools and departments within universities like Emory University and Columbia College had policies that banned tobacco companies from funding research, according to a study conducted at UCLA, which was obtained by The Hatchet.

Major tobacco companies have been accused of using research to benefit their bottom lines. In 2004, Duke University’s Center for Smoking Cessation received $37 million for a decade-long research project from tobacco giant Phillip Morris USA.

Officials from Phillip Morris USA did not return multiple requests to comment. In the past the company has said its involvement in research is not about public relations and that all projects are conducted by third parties without company review of findings.

Rajiv Rimal, a professor and chair of prevention and community health, said the ban should extend past the public health school to become a University-wide policy because no department should accept money from an industry that makes products proven to be major health hazards.

The public health school houses a tobacco research consortium for experts from universities across the District, including Howard and American universities. As a University that is active in examining the effects of tobacco and the activities of the tobacco industry, it would be a conflict of interest to accept their funding, Rimal said.

“Use of the product actually kills people, so in the school of public health – where our mission is to save lives – this is completely antithetical to who we are and what we do,” he said.

Michael Darden, an associate professor of health policy and management, said he doesn’t support an outright ban because the acceptance of tobacco money shouldn’t matter “if the peer review process identifies quality science and has full disclosure of funding.”

“The reality is that in public health, especially where all research needs to be funded, that’s the incentive model for faculty,” Darden said. “We need to have this debate.”

Experts said taking funds from major tobacco companies can seem more like an endorsement of tobacco as opposed to a way to bolster research.

Kimberlee Homer Vagadori, the project director of California Youth Advocacy Network and a national expert on college tobacco-free policy and tobacco industry sponsorship issues, said tobacco companies maximize their relationships with universities for self-serving purposes, like using the research to persuade consumers that universities support the company.

Homer Vagadori said the decision to take tobacco money is often viewed as a signal of support for the company, an issue that can cast a shadow on the integrity of the institution.

“The big challenge is where do you limit the rights of an individual researcher to accept money and do the research they think is important to do, versus the integrity of an institution where that researcher is at?” she said.

Meredith Roaten contributed reporting.

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