Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Duke Center for Smoking Cessation Hiding Its Funding from Philip Morris, Violating Basic Public Health Ethics

One of the great cover-ups in history in tobacco control is occurring before our very eyes. Ironically, this time it is not a tobacco company engaging in the deceptive cover-up, but an anti-smoking organization: the Duke Center for Smoking Cessation (CSC).

Most organization web sites have an "About Us" link that provides historical information about the group, such as who founded it and what its funding sources have been. I couldn't find any such page on the CSC web site.

Most organizations have a funding, sponsors, or disclosure page where they list the sources of their financial support over the years. I couldn't find any such page on the CSC web site.

In fact, if you casually peruse the CSC web site, you will get the impression that this is a legitimate, run-of-the-mill anti-smoking organization that is dedicated to smoking cessation.

But that couldn't be further from the truth.

The Rest of the Story

If you look at the web site of the Duke Center for Smoking Cessation, you will be hard-pressed to identify one of the major founding corporate supporters of the center: Philip Morris. Despite extensive searching, I was unable to find any prominent page on the site with a disclosure that the Center received $37 million from Philip Morris between 2004 and 2012 (as acknowledged and boasted by Philip Morris). A search for "Philip Morris" on the web page's search engine came up empty.

According to Philip Morris: "Since 2004, PM USA has supported the Duke Center for Nicotine and Cessation Research. PM USA expects to provide a total of $37 million to the center through June 2012 to develop, evaluate and disseminate improved methods for quitting smoking."
There is a donation page, but little would potential donors know that they are adding themselves to a list that is dominated by the nation's largest tobacco company. Nowhere on this page does it disclose that the Center was largely created and supported by a $37 million grant from Philip Morris.

The schedule of activities for the Center's 2012 research conference fails to acknowledge or disclose this whopping amount of funding for the Center from Philip Morris.

The information page for the conference fails to acknowledge this massive Philip Morris financial support.

The summary page for the Center's director also fails to disclose the Philip Morris funding.

A couple of lapses in disclosure might be attributed to poor memory, or to a minor oversight, but the extent of the Center's hiding of Philip Morris' support from 2004-2012 is, in my opinion, beyond a simple mistake.

In my opinion, what we have here is an immense cover-up of the Center's wrongdoing.

The mistake Duke made is that it allowed itself and its reputation and good name to be used as a public relations ploy for a tobacco company. Duke allowed itself to be used as a pawn in the public relations and marketing strategy of Philip Morris.

Clearly, since the purpose of this research funding was demonstrably not to dramatically reduce the number of smokers, its purpose was therefore to serve as a public relations ploy - by which Philip Morris could improve its public image by being able to argue that it really cares and that it is a responsible corporate citizen which is trying to help its customers break their addiction to its products. By associating its name with that of Duke University, Philip Morris used Duke to gain public relations marketing value from that association.

This research center couldn't have been any better planned for Philip Morris than had it been designed by Philip Morris' own public relations department.

Actually, in a way it was, because Duke University served as a PR arm for Philip Morris, by virtue of its accepting this tobacco money to conduct a research program that had the effect of diverting attention away from areas where we could really make a difference in getting people to quit smoking (such as developing aggressive, anti-smoking media campaigns rather than studying the biology of nicotine addiction).

For tax or accounting purposes, Philip Morris should really have classified these research dollars under "public relations." And they sure got their money's worth.

The rest of the story is that Duke undermined its own scientific integrity and that of academia as a whole by allowing itself to serve as a pawn in the tobacco industry's public relations and marketing strategy. A university - and especially a medical center - should not play a role in marketing the most deadly consumer product. But that is exactly what this Duke center did for 8 years.

Now, rather than acknowledge its mistake and apologize for the disservice it did to the public's health and to the integrity of academia and of scientific research, the Center appears to be attempting to erase this sorry chapter in tobacco control history.

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