Medical researchers have received grants from big tobacco

Harvard, MIT among universities to accept funding from cigarette maker

Philip Morris USA, the nation’s largest cigarette maker, provided millions of dollars in grants to scientists at several Massachusetts universities to support research on diseases linked to smoking.

The company said it doesn’t interfere with the studies, and researchers are required to disclose the source of the funding. Critics, however, insist any link to tobacco companies compromises the work.

“Taking money from the tobacco industry to conduct scientific research is like the DA taking money from the Mafia to conduct investigations of crime,” said Gregory Connolly, former director of the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program.

David Sylvia, a spokesman for Philip Morris, said grants have been given to Boston University, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Massachusetts since 2000. They were among hundreds of projects underwritten worldwide. He said the company placed an emphasis on research into tobacco-related illnesses.

“Obviously, cigarettes are a product that is addictive and cause serious disease,” Sylvia told The Boston Globe. “Our goal is to try to reduce the harm associated with cigarettes.”

Dr. Karen Antman, provost of Boston University Medical School, said in a statement that the institution has received nearly $4 million in research grants from Philip Morris over the past decade.

BU’s student newspaper, The Daily Free Press, first reported the school’s acceptance of money from Philip Morris last week.

“We adhere to the highest ethical conduct in research and pursue funding from a variety of sources for unrestricted medical research,” Antman wrote.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School were told to stop applying for grants from tobacco companies in 2004, according to a statement from the university. Researchers with existing grants were allowed to complete their work.

A spokeswoman for UMass Medical School told the Globe the school does not currently have any tobacco-supported research. It received no more than $2 million, out of $1.3 billion in research funding, from cigarette-makers in the last decade.

Dr. Jerome Kassirer, a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, said he doesn’t believe tobacco companies would fund academic studies if they didn’t benefit in some way. “If the motivation (of tobacco firms) is to try to show that their products are not as evil as they actually are, then I think researchers should not be doing that sort of thing,” said Kassirer. “If the money is completely unrestricted, then it might be OK.”

-with a report from CP