Cigarette Company’s “Blood Money” Paid for Important Lung Cancer Study, Critics Say

It has turned out that an important lung cancer study was actually funded by a <"">cigarette company.  In late 2006, Dr. Claudia Henschke of Weill Cornell Medical College released a study revealing that the majority (80 percent) of lung cancer deaths could be prevented through widespread use of CT scans.  The study was published in The New England Journal of Medicine and indicated—in small print at the end of the piece—that the work was financed, in part, by the Foundation for Lung Cancer:  Early Detection, Prevention & Treatment.  A tax record review revealed the foundation was almost entirely underwritten by $3.6 million in grants from the parent company of the Liggett Group—the Vector Group—maker of Liggett Select, Eve, Grand Prix, Quest, and Pyramid cigarette brands.  From 2000 to 2003, the foundation received four grants from Vector.

Dr. Jeffrey M. Drazen, editor-in-chief of the journal expressed surprise, “In the seven years that I’ve been here, we have never knowingly published anything supported by” a cigarette maker.  As a matter-of-fact, more and more universities do not accept grants from cigarette makers; a growing awareness of the influence companies can have over research outcomes has led most medical journals and associations to demand researchers accurately disclose financing sources.

Prominent cancer researchers and journal editors were stunned to learn of the Henschke-Liggett link.  Cigarette makers are so reviled among cancer advocates and researchers that association with industry can taint researchers and bar their work from being published. “If you’re using blood money, you need to tell people you’re using blood money,” said Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society which gave Henschke over $100,000 in grants from 2004 to 2007 it would not have provided had it known of Liggett’s grants, Brawley said.

Henschke and Dr. David Yankelevitz—Henschke’s long-time collaborator—wrote, “It seems clear that you are trying to suggest that Cornell was trying to conceal this gift, which is entirely false.”  “The gift was announced publicly, the advocacy and public health community knew about it, it is quite easy to look it up on the Internet, its board has independent Cornell faculty on it, and it was fully disclosed to grant funding organizations,” they wrote, adding that the Vector grant represented a small part of the study’s overall cost. The foundation no longer accepts grants from tobacco companies, they wrote.  In the Vector press release, Dr. Henschke was quoted as saying that, thanks to the Vector grants, “we have raised the initial funding needed to support this important research and data collection on the effectiveness of spiral CT screening.”

Dr. Antonio Gotto, dean of Weill Cornell, said Henschke, Yankelevitz, and another colleague set up the foundation initially without university’s approval, which faculty members are allowed to do.  He and Mahon joined the board following its creation to ensure Vector grants were handled correctly, “If we had been approached, we would not have set up the foundation,” Gotto said. “We would have accepted the gift directly. We think we behaved honorably. There was no attempt to set up a foundation to hide tobacco money.”

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