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The Israel Medical Association's ethics bureau is to hold a discussion on the use of tobacco company money to finance medical research - with the possible aim of preparing a position paper or even binding guidelines for all its physician members.
Last year, the IMA issued mandatory rules for all Israeli physicians regarding medical research financed by pharmaceutical companies to prevent sponsor influence and bias, but they made no mention of the tobacco industry.
"It is about time that we discuss it," said IMA chairman Dr. Yoram Blachar, who initiated the ethics bureau discussion after reading The Jerusalem Post's articles this week disclosing that researchers at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem's Ein Kerem, in collaboration with molecular geneticists at the Weizmann Institute, have conducted research on smoking with $250,000 in funding from the world's largest tobacco company.
The Post disclosed that Prof. Bernard Lerer, head of the biological psychiatric laboratory at the hospital's psychiatry department, initiated and led a study of the effects of genes, environment and psychological characteristics on smoking patterns in young Israeli women. Philip Morris USA and Philip Morris International paid a generous $250,000 for the study, which has been published in the on-line edition of the prestigious Molecular Psychiatry (of the Nature Publishing Group) and is due to be in the print edition in February. Lerer told the Post on Monday that "we are not the only ones. There are at least four or five other Hadassah research teams currently conducting research on tobacco with funding from Philip Morris." The Hadassah Women's Zionist Organization of America, despite its vigorous anti-smoking campaigning in the US and Israel, declined to comment, saying it was the medical center's job to do so.
Meanwhile, the Israel Cancer Association (ICA) executive will soon discuss the issue as well, ICA president Prof. Eliezer Robinson told the Post on Thursday. The International Union Against Cancer (UICC) - the world's largest independent, non-profit, non-governmental association of cancer-fighting organizations - has issued a non-binding recommendation to its 270 members in 80 countries against taking research money from foundations established by tobacco companies.
While the ICA is "totally opposed" to tobacco-funded medical research, Robinson said, it has not so far withheld research funds from departments in medical centers and universities that accept tobacco money as funding. But in light of the Post's disclosures, Robinson said he wants the ICA to discuss the matter formally. "We will discuss whether we should refuse to fund cancer research at any hospital or academic department that gets money from tobacco. I will raise the issue," he added.
"There are many reasons why there should be restrictions," Robinson said. "It is money earned by selling products that cause the death of many people. In addition, there are documented cases from Sweden and Switzerland in which studies on passive smoking - funded by the tobacco industry and conducted by physicians and scientists - concluded that passive smoking [sidestream smoke] does not harm health. The influence of the sponsors was clearly evident when independent studies in Lyon, France, proved the opposite."
Multibillion-dollar lawsuits against the tobacco industry in the US required the companies to disclose their links with research institutions, but these data are only from the past; there is nothing on their current sponsorship of medical research around the world, Robinson said.
Robinson, who was a member of the Health Ministry-appointed Gillon Committee on the Prevention of Smoking (whose recommendations were never prepared and issued by committee chairman Judge Alon Gillon and thus aborted), said that body heard testimony about tobacco companies in Europe funding research allegedly to persuade children and teenagers not to smoke. "But it turned out that the research - stressing that smoking was an adult occupation - actually encouraged kids to smoke so they would feel grown up." The tobacco companies "are very smart. They don't just spread around their money. They support research that will help their cause, including their defense in lawsuits against them," Robinson said.
The Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot conceded Thursday that its six molecular genetics lab researchers, headed by Prof. Doron Lancet and Dr. Edna Ben-Asher, "were aware of the source of funding" for Lerer's research study. It added that "the role of the institute's scientists was to investigate various questions of genetic variations on the molecular level in research aimed at understanding personal inclinations for smoking." The Weizmann Institute has "a few other" research groups that receive research grants from funds belonging to tobacco companies, the institute spokesman said, but he did not have details on who they were or what they were studying except to say that "the studies are not connected with smoking." The institute spokesman said it had no policy to accept, forgo or restrict funding offered by tobacco companies, but added that "if restrictions becomes the law, we will of course act accordingly."