(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Although the Hadassah Women's Zionist Organization of America (HWZOA) has been a major force against smoking and tobacco advertising, it has declined so far to get involved in the international criticism provoked by The Jerusalem Post's disclosure on Tuesday that some of the Ein Kerem hospital's physicians are conducting smoking research funded by the world's largest tobacco company.
The HWZOA's national office in New York, headed by its president June Walker (who was already aware of the issue), would say only that it would "not respond on the issue. The hospital should take care of it."
The Post disclosed that Prof. Bernard Lerer, head of the biological psychiatric laboratory in the hospital's psychiatry department, initiated and led a study of the effects of genetics, environment and psychology on smoking patterns in young Israeli women. Philip Morris USA and Philip Morris International - the world's largest tobacco company - 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 study of some 500 Israeli students, aged 20 to 30, found that nicotine-receptor genes had the strongest influence on whether women who already smoked would become addicted long-term smokers, while psychological influences and background most determined whether they would start smoking in the first place.
The study did not look into the psychological effects of tobacco advertising - the focus of multibillion-dollar lawsuits in Israel and abroad against tobacco companies - on smoking initiation.
The Hadassah Medical Organization (HMO), which runs the two medical centers, commented, "Hadassah is proud to be the first hospital in Israel to introduce a smoke-free policy in its facilities. This policy and our stand against smoking remains firm. The research conducted by Prof. Lerer is totally objective and unbiased. It was conducted solely according to scientific criteria and approved by the Helsinki Committee."
HMO continued, "No person or company, including the tobacco company, imposed any conditions or made demands to Prof. Lerer or Hadassah. The tobacco company could not - and did not - intervene in the research whatsoever... Any implication that non-academic interests tainted the results is incorrect and insulting to Prof. Lerer."
Meanwhile, Rehovot's Weizmann Institute of Science, which was a minor partner of Lerer's in the study by testing genes in its molecular genetics lab, is taking flak as a result of the collaboration.
Six Weizmann scientists, including leading molecular geneticists Prof. Doron Lancet and Dr. Edna Ben-Asher, are listed as co-authors.
The Miami-based Flight Attendant Medical Research Institute (FAMRI) was set up to promote cancer research with funds won in lawsuits against tobacco companies by airline flight attendants who were exposed to tobacco smoke in their planes.
A FAMRI lay board member read the Post's report and was upset to see the Weizmann Institute's connection, as the Rehovot institute two years ago received $8 million from FAMRI to set up a center of excellence to discover a cure for cancer. The FAMRI grant is renewable and subject to review.
Amos Hausner, the lay board member and chairman of the Israel Council for the Prevention of Smoking, expressed his "surprise" on Wednesday about Weizmann's participation in the Lerer study. "Weizmann scientists have participated in research that, by not even looking at tobacco ads' influence, in effect conceals their influence on smoking initiation and tobacco addiction."
Turning to Hadassah, Hausner said that HWZOA's years of activity for prevention of smoking "could go down the drain. It is a shame, because its Israeli branch, Hadassah-Israel, is one of the country's most active organizations against smoking."
Asked to comment on whether the Weizmann researchers knew the study was funded by Philip Morris, the Weizmann Institute said it was unaware of the whole issue and needed time to check the facts.
Shirley Brown, a leading Hadassah-Israel anti-smoking activist, wrote Wednesday to HMO director-general Prof. Shlomo Mor-Yosef (who is abroad and unavailable for comment), "Today was a very shocking day for me and other colleagues in Hadassah-Israel and the Israel Council for the Prevention of Smoking, who called me about the front-page article in The Jerusalem Post. I have sat on many committees of the Knesset dealing with anti-smoking laws and was shocked that the powerful tobacco lobby was invited to sit in these meetings and be allowed to testify, to prejudice the votes of the Knesset committee...
"Now the tobacco industry has invaded Hadassah-University Hospital with their money for research. Why doesn't Prof. [Lerer] study the influence of printed media causing young women to start smoking and to continue because it is portrayed as cool and sexy?"
Asked whether the government hospitals also receive tobacco company funds for medical research, the Health Ministry said it had "begun to look into this, and so far we have not found any that receive such funding, but we are continuing to examine the matter."
Prof. Shimon Glick, a senior medical ethicist at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev's Faculty of Health Sciences, commented on the story disclosed by the Post, which noted that, while the Israel Medical Association had set down strict rules for its doctor-members when doing research funded by pharmaceutical companies, it has ignored research paid for by tobacco companies.
"In spite of all the shenanigans of the drug companies, their products are fundamentally intended to cure disease and help people. One has to regulate them so that the profit motive doesn't overwhelm the health promotion aspects," Glick asserted. "But cigarettes have really no redeeming feature in light of what we now know about them; selling them and promoting them is contributing to so much death and suffering that it is frightening.
"Even if the research is good, the very good public relations that the cigarette companies get from supporting such research puts them in a favorable public light, and that in itself is detrimental. As long as they continue to promote smoking, any favorable publicity for them is negative."