Ethical Smoke Screen?

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 debated—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.

"It blows me away that UT would take money from a cigarette manufacturer, knowing that smoking kills," says Douglas Benton, an Alcoa resident who earned a business degree at UT and founded No Smoking in Restaurants in Tennessee (NoSIR) in 2005. "I don't like people making one penny off killing other people. I don'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."

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 Morris' Vice President of Leaf, Jeanette Hubbard: "Because American tobacco is the backbone of our blends, a stable supply of U.S. tobacco is very important to Philip Morris USA. That'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."

But there'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.

"I'm not really catching any heat," says the center's director Daniel Green, who also worked with the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association. "Obviously you get some questions about, ‘Why tobacco?' but we're getting a lot of support from the growers."

This support from growers will probably continue—after all, they stand to gain production and industry information that hasn't been available since the 2004-2005 federal tobacco-quota buyout terminated federal tobacco price-support and supply-control programs, and the center'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 Tennessee's public health community and UT alumni learn of the center's creation and the source of its funding.

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

According to the state Department of Health'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 state's general population and 20.1 percent for the United States on the whole.

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

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

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

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

"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," Tiller says.

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

All of the center's reports and survey results will be available to the general public, ordinarily from summaries on the center's website—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 center's research, which could also benefit Philip Morris and other national cigarette and tobacco-product manufacturers.

"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," 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 in—or getting back to—tobacco production. She's also wary of Philip Morris' 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.

"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," 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. "We've seen, over the years, that domestically grown tobacco is just a minute fraction compared to what tobacco companies purchase worldwide."

And growers had good reasons to get out of the tobacco business back in 2005—and to continue to stay out, says Mitchell. "They wouldn't make the same money that they did with price supports, they don'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, it's just a really strange situation."

The Philip Morris investment may also cast a shadow on UT Agricultural Economics' relationship with the public health community, says Mitchell, even though they'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 center's creation.

"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 they're funded."

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

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

"It'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," Benton says. "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, ‘No.'"