Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Science, Academia, and Tobacco
A review of The Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition
Academic collaborations come in many flavors. Just because the money is corporate doesn’t mean the studies that are funded are flawed by definition. But the cigarette industry’s academic philanthropy set new records for hubris, writes Robert Proctor, professor of history at Stanford University, in his new book, The Golden Holocaust. Duke University and Bowman Gray School of Medicine, both in North Carolina, are named for tobacco magnates.
Harvard has a long and dubious history of tobacco largesse. Harvard’s Tobacco and Health Research Program kicked off in 1972 with a generous tobacco grant from the Tobacco Institute, who dreamed up the program in the first place. “The Harvard project made the industry look good and so was handsomely endowed, absorbing $7 million over an eight-year period.” Also in 1972, Harvard anthropologist Carl Seltzer testified for the industry in numerous public hearings, stating: “We do not know whether or not there is a causal relationship between smoking and heart disease.” In 2002, Harvard’s School of Public Health declared it would no longer undertake research sponsored by the cigarette industry. Many universities had already gone cold turkey, and after Harvard, bans were put in place by the Karolinska Institute, Johns Hopkins University, Emory University, and many others.
Proctor informs us that “Washington University in St. Louis has been another big sponge for tobacco money." In 1971, the university set a new world record for an industry grant to a single institution, and “millions more were eventually funneled into the School of Medicine, turning it into a hotbed of cigarette-friendly activism.” The irony of taking money from Big Tobacco to fund research on lung cancer is not lost on Proctor. A good deal of the research was aimed away from tobacco and toward possible causes like viruses. “The goal was clearly more than cancer cures,” he writes. “The industry also hoped to generate good PR and academic allies.” The industry was able to garner sympathetic headlines, like “Helping in Fight against Cancer,” in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.
The other academic hotbed thoroughly penetrated by Big Tobacco was UCLA, according to Proctor. “Tobacco collaborators at UCLA have attracted their fair share of criticism from public health advocates, and for understandable reasons.” The university picked up its own multimillion-dollar grant from cigarette makers for the Program on Tobacco and Health in 1974, and that wasn’t the first tobacco money the university had taken. “As with all such projects,” Proctor writes, “industry lawyers… played a key role in the decision to fund—with the companies also conceding that the decision ‘should be based more on public relations than on purely scientific grounds.’” The end came in 2007, when “UCLA’s dance with the devil” garnered a ton of unwanted press. Reports showed that UCLA had taken more than $6 million from Philip Morris for research “to compare how children’s brains and monkey brains react to nicotine.”
Proctor admits that singling out Harvard, Washington University and UCLA is somewhat misleading, “given that scholars throughout the world have gorged themselves on tobacco money. Indeed it may well be the rare institution that has NOT at one time or another dipped into this pot.”
Including Stanford, where Proctor teaches. Plenty of Stanford researchers have undertaken contract work and served as expert witnesses for the industry right in Proctor’s own backyard, where “at least eighteen faculty members have received monies (in the form of sponsored research) from the Council for Tobacco Research, with at least two of these—Judith Swain and Hugh McDevitt from the medical school—serving on its Scientific Advisory Board. Stanford pharmacologists were assisting the industry with its diethylene glycol studies as early as the 1930s…”
In the conclusion to his densely researched but surprisingly readable work, Proctor returns to the controlling irony of the book: “Our bizarre starting point is the well-stocked shelf of cigarettes, to which we respond by begging people not to purchase them.” He presents the dream of a world in which cigarettes have been abolished. To do so, he admits, would require a leap. “If phasing out tobacco seems out of reach, this is only because our imaginations are impoverished.” And he has scant patience for the “Prohibition failed” argument. It failed, he says, because people like to drink. “Tobacco presents us with a very different situation. Nicotine is not a recreational drug. Most people who smoke wish they didn’t, and most smokers (90 percent) regret ever having started.”
Graphics Credit: http://www.prwatch.org/node/7004