citybeat (2008-09)

Ethical Smoke Screen?Padgett for the Senate

City Beat

UT takes $445,000 of Philip Morris money for tobacco grower research

Should the University of Tennessee accept money from the tobacco industry to help promote the growth of domestic tobacco production? That ethical question has yet to be debatedâ"even nearly six months after UT quietly received a one-year $445,000 grant from Philip Morris to establish and operate a Center for Tobacco Grower Research in Morgan Hall on the Knoxville campus.

News of the grant is coming as a surprise to anti-smoking activists and even UT staff.

â“It blows me away that UT would take money from a cigarette manufacturer, knowing that smoking kills,â” says Douglas Benton, an Alcoa resident who earned a business degree at UT and founded No Smoking in Restaurants in Tennessee (NoSIR) in 2005. â“I donâ’t like people making one penny off killing other people. I donâ’t understand why my university would try to help farmers to make more money selling something that has no possible benefit at all to a human.â”

UT initially released its big news to ag extension agents, tobacco growers, and burley trade publications where the reaction was positive. The inaugural Nov. 29 press release unabashedly quotes Philip Morrisâ’ Vice President of Leaf, Jeanette Hubbard: â“Because American tobacco is the backbone of our blends, a stable supply of U.S. tobacco is very important to Philip Morris USA. Thatâ’s why we are pleased to work with the University of Tennessee to support sustainability of U.S. tobacco production through the research conducted by the center.â”

But thereâ’s been hardly a murmur about the ethics of accepting funding from a manufacturer of tobacco products, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say cause 438,000 deaths in the United States per year, representing 5.5 million years of potential life lost and $167 billion in health-care costs and lost productivity annually.

â“Iâ’m not really catching any heat,â” says the centerâ’s director Daniel Green, who also worked with the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association. â“Obviously you get some questions about, â‘Why tobacco?â’ but weâ’re getting a lot of support from the growers.â”

This support from growers will probably continueâ"after all, they stand to gain production and industry information that hasnâ’t been available since the 2004-2005 federal tobacco-quota buyout terminated federal tobacco price-support and supply-control programs, and the centerâ’s research will undoubtedly provide them with ways to produce more competitively in the new free-market economy.

But away from the burley fields, opposition and outrage are mounting as more members of Tennesseeâ’s public health community and UT alumni learn of the centerâ’s creation and the source of its funding.

Jenny Carico, a nurse at Student Health Services who earned her Bachelorâ’s of Nursing at UT, says tobacco money funding anything on campus is ill-advised and unethical. â“I think a great deal of tobacco marketing is geared to my patient population and it makes me spitting mad,â” she says.

According to the state Department of Healthâ’s Prevalence of Tobacco Use in Tennessee, 1997-2007, smoking prevalence among adults ages 18-24 years is around 29 percent, compared to 22.6 percent of the stateâ’s general population and 20.1 percent for the United States on the whole.

â“The cigarette manufacturers are gunning for these kids with marketing that gets them started smoking at an age when they think theyâ’re bulletproof,â” she says. â“By the time they figure out theyâ’re not, they have to deal with the reality that tobacco is addictive, sometimes at great expense to their healthâ"thatâ’s not the kind of profit we want funding university research.â”

The agricultural portion of the university community, though, doesnâ’t see what all the fuss is about.

â“You know, tobacco is still a legal commodity for farm owners to produce,â” says Green, himself a non-smoker though he grew up on a tobacco farm in Kentucky. â“Here, itâ’s just a part of agricultureâ"an important part of agriculture.â”

Kelly Tiller, an assistant professor at UTâ’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, whose work is partially funded by Philip Morris, explains the agricultural communityâ’s emotional disconnect between tobacco fatalities and the product they grow as a long-time cultural phenomenon, one that hasnâ’t changed much even though around three-fourths of the stateâ’s tobacco growers ceased production after the federal tobacco-quota buyout.

â“To them, tobacco growing is viewed as a legal farm enterprise that has provided a significant economic base for many of our rural communities for a very long time, and is tightly integrated into those communities,â” Tiller says.

The research center, she says, will also emphasize tobacco merely as an agricultural commodity. â“The data will revolve around the farm part of production, not cigarettes or any other manufactured products.â”

All of the centerâ’s reports and survey results will be available to the general public, ordinarily from summaries on the centerâ’s websiteâ"with no proprietary information for Philip Morris. The benefit to the tobacco giant will be shared by other manufacturers and growers, says Tiller.

And Green hopes that more farmers will decide to grow tobacco because of the centerâ’s research, which could also benefit Philip Morris and other national cigarette and tobacco-product manufacturers.

â“While the primary objective will be to collect and disseminate information necessary to enhance the long-term sustainability of U.S. tobacco production, research conducted by the center may improve the success of current growers or attract new or former growers to the industry,â” he says.

Green insists that more tobacco farmers, in Tennessee and other tobacco-growing states, would be good for the farm economy.

But Chastity Mitchell, contract lobbyist for the grassroots Campaign for Healthy & Responsible Tennessee (CHART), based in Nashville, is skeptical of more farmers getting inâ"or getting back toâ"tobacco production. Sheâ’s also wary of Philip Morrisâ’ interest in Tennessee starting in 2007, the same year the state passed the Non-Smokers Protection Act prohibiting smoking in most public places and workplaces, increased its cigarette tax by $0.42 to $0.62 per pack, and significantly increased funding for its tobacco control program.

â“I find it interesting that after the big policy year that we had in 2007...that Philip Morris would make this kind of significant investment in Tennessee to sustain the tobacco economy and even to try to recruit new growers,â” says Mitchell, who has worked in Tennessee in tobacco control for the past eight years, including stints with the American Heart Association and as Government Relations Director for the American Cancer Society. â“Weâ’ve seen, over the years, that domestically grown tobacco is just a minute fraction compared to what tobacco companies purchase worldwide.â”

And growers had good reasons to get out of the tobacco business back in 2005â"and to continue to stay out, says Mitchell. â“They wouldnâ’t make the same money that they did with price supports, they donâ’t have the allotment anymore...and to try to get them back, especially when manufacturers like Philip Morris are continuing to buy more and more overseas, itâ’s just a really strange situation.â”

The Philip Morris investment may also cast a shadow on UT Agricultural Economicsâ’ relationship with the public health community, says Mitchell, even though theyâ’ve historically collaborated on tobacco issues that affected both groups, facilitated by Tiller, who was a tobacco policy analyst almost nine years before the research centerâ’s creation.

â“I think those collaborations fostered a good bit of communication, but now that we know Dr. Tiller is involved with this Tobacco Research Center, and Philip Morris is underwriting it, it would certainly make those in the public health community hesitant to sit down and have an open dialogue with the tobacco growers, knowing how theyâ’re funded.â”

At least on the surface, the Philip Morris money does not seem to benefit the University of Tennesseeâ’s bottom line. It does cover Greenâ’s entire salary and overhead at his Morgan Hall office, but heâ’s a new hire, not an existing member of the faculty. A small portion goes to cover part of Dr. Tillerâ’s salary, and a graduate assistant who would come from the Agricultural School is budgeted, but hasnâ’t been hired. The vast majority pays for data collection expenses.

But even if UT wonâ’t get a new wing for the Ag school, or millions in discretionary funds, NoSIRâ’s Benton can see no excuse for taking Philip Morris money.

â“Itâ’s incredible that an institute of higher learning would promote smoking when ordinarily the more educated people are, the less likely they are to smoke,â” Benton says. â“I think the university has to learn to be like the rest of us...that sometimes you just have to put your foot down and say, â‘No.â’â” â"Rose Kennedy

Former Knox Clerk seeks Democratic nomination

Mike Padgett, the former Knox County Clerk, says heâ’s in the hunt for the Democratic Party nomination to run against Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, and he has the backing of some of the stateâ’s top Democrats.

Padgett, who was term-limited out of the Clerkâ’s office last year, says heâ’s been out raising money and will be in the primary race no matter what former state party chairman Bob Tuke of Nashville does. Tuke has said he intends to run for the Senate seat and is making a formal announcement this week. Padgettâ’s formal announcement will come March 4, his 59th birthday, in Knoxville, he says.

Among his supporters, Padgett says, are Randy Button, also a former state Democratic chairman, and Johnny Hayes, the former TVA director and long-time Democratic fund-raiser. His campaign chairman, Jed Brewer, is a founder, along with Button, of Blue Solutions, a Democratic grass-roots organization.

Ironically, Button is a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, while Brewer, who was political director of Harold Ford Jr.â’s Senate campaign two years ago and has worked in Gov. Bredesenâ’s administration, is Tennessee campaign director for the Obama bid this year.

Padgett himself is on the steering committee for the Clinton campaign here, saying he agreed to serve in that capacity as a favor to former Gov. Ned McWherter. â“Whichever Democrat wins the nomination, Iâ’ll support them 110 percent for president,â” Padgett says.

With a political base formed by winning seven elections, including school board races, as a Democrat in Republican-dominated Knox County, Padgett says heâ’s been crossing the state, making and renewing contacts. â“I know every county clerk in the state personally,â” he says, and those connections should help him form a county-by-county organization. As the only Democrat holding constitutional fee office in the county for 20 years, Padgett was responsible for many innovations and improvements in public service as clerk. He came under fire late in his tenure for staffing excesses, but he was the only fee officeholder who bowed to the invocation of term limits by the state Supreme Court. The others fought vainly to stay in office.

Some Knox County Democrats were surprised by his move. Dennis Francis, a Democratic activist and former election committee member, says when Padgett called him and told him he was running for the Senate, Francisâ’ response was, â“Against whom? [Republican state Sen.] Tim Burchett?â”

When told it was for Alexanderâ’s seat, Francis says, â“You could have knocked me over with a feather.â”

Likewise Warren Gooch, a former county Democratic Party chairman, who says he himself was contacted by some state Democrats about running for the seat and decided not to, says Padgettâ’s decision to go for it took him by surprise.

No person has ever jumped from county clerk to the U.S. Senate in Tennessee, in political commentators Francisâ’ and Goochâ’s memory, but Padgett says heâ’s up to it.

â“Itâ’s a big step but I feel very comfortable doing what Iâ’m doing,â” he says. He says he welcomes a challenge from Tuke. â“I like a good competitive race,â” he says, â“giving the people of Tennessee a choice.â”

â“People are hungry for change,â” Padgett says, echoing the rallying cry of national Democrats this election season, â“and I want to give it to them.â” He says his first question to people heâ’ll encounter in his campaign against the popular Alexander, whoâ’s won four statewide races for governor and senator and served as University of Tennessee president and U.S. Secretary of Education, is: â“Whatâ’s Lamar Alexander ever done for you personally?â” â"Barry Henderson


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