In its Feb. 23 newsletter, Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI) announced the appointment of Bennett S. LeBow to its board of trustees. Founded in 1947, the Institute, which is one of the nation's foremost cancer research and treatment centers, describes its mission as providing "expert, compassionate care to children and adults with cancer while advancing the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, cure, and prevention of cancer and related diseases."
The Feb. 23 newsletter describes Mr. LeBow as follows: "Bennett S. LeBow, a former computer analyst, founded Brooke Group in 1980 to acquire troubled companies and turn them around. Today this prominent businessman is one of the country’s leading philanthropists and has been a generous supporter of DFCI in a number of ways. In 2002 he established the LeBow Genomic/Genetic Research Fund, which supports research to identify and validate the genetic changes responsible for multiple myeloma development, disease progression, and emergence of resistance to conventional chemotherapeutic agents. Many of LeBow’s early investments were in the computer industry, and eventually expanded into other areas. He currently serves as director of the New Valley Corporation and as president of the Bennett & Geraldine LeBow Foundation."
The Rest of the Story
What the DFCI newsletter failed to reveal is that Bennett S. LeBow is not just any old "prominent businessman." He is the Chief Executive Officer of Vector Group Ltd., whose subsidiaries -- Liggett Group Inc. and Vector Tobacco Inc. -- produce more than 9.8 billion cigarettes each year, according to the 2003 Annual Report. Liggett is the sixth largest manufacturer of cigarettes in the United States, accounting for 2.6% of domestic cigarette production, and therefore (by extrapolation) resulting in more than 10,000 annual deaths, many of them from cancer.
And as if that isn't enough, according to Gene Borio's Tobacco on Trial blog, LeBow recently testified in federal court that "I’m hesitating on the direct link" between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. Moreover, a Florida jury found Liggett liable for damages in a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Florida smokers on grounds of " strict liability, negligence, breach of express warranty, breach of implied warranty, fraud, conspiracy to commit fraud, and intentional infliction of emotional distress." The jury assessed punitive damages of $790 million against LeBow's company, although the verdict has been appealed and a Florida Supreme Court decision is pending.
The appointment of LeBow to Dana-Farber's board of trustees is difficult to believe. How could one of the nation's premiere cancer research and treatment centers choose the CEO of a major tobacco company -- whose products are partly responsible for the suffering of its cancer patients -- to sit on its board of trustees? And the perception that DFCI intentionally overlooked his chairmanship of a top tobacco company because he made financial contributions to the Institute is troubling. But perhaps even more troubling is the Institute's failure to disclose LeBow's affiliation in its newsletter. Did it really think it could hide LeBow's true identity from its contributors?
Well apparently not, as an article in today's Boston Globe reported that LeBow has stepped down from his board position after the newspaper inquired about his appointment.
The rest of the story reveals not only a serious error in judgment on the part of a leading cancer institute but possibly an attempt to deceive contributors about the true nature of the board appointee -- all in the interest, it appears -- of rewarding a substantial benefactor.
UPDATE (March 8, 2005 - 12:45 pm): Rivka Weiser of the American Council on Science and Health has written an excellent article on this topic. Read it at the ACSH FactsAndFears site.