The Israel Cancer Association (ICA) has asked the Health Ministry and thousands of anti-smoking activists around the world to work for the amendment of the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) - approved by 169 countries and ratified by 115 (including Israel) - to prohibit the funding of medical research by tobacco companies.
In its official letter Tuesday to ministry director-general Prof. Avi Yisraeli and ministry legal expert on tobacco Elana Mayshar, the ICA said it was motivated to take this dramatic initiative as a result of reading three articles in The Jerusalem Post last week revealing that Philip Morris, the world's largest tobacco company, had invested $250,000 in a single study on the influence of genes and personal background on young Israeli women's starting and continuing to smoke. The chief researcher, Hadassah University Medical Center psychiatrist Prof. Bernard Lerer, told The Post that he was "not the only one" at Hadassah doing research on smoking with funding from the giant tobacco company - "four or five" other groups were are currently doing so as well, Lerer said.
The study of 500 Israeli women students, which has just been published in the online edition of the journal Molecular Psychiatry and will appear in February's print edition, concluded 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. Lerer's study ignored the psychological effects of tobacco advertising -- the focus of multibillion-dollar lawsuits in Israel and abroad against tobacco companies -- on smoking initiation.
The Health Ministry said Yisraeli and his legal staff would examine the issue and decide whether Mayshar would propose such an amendment at a Geneva meeting in February of representatives of all WHO members that have ratified the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.
Haim Geva-Haspil, the ICA's chief of health promotion and education, wrote on the association's behalf not only to the ministry, but also to thousands of anti-smoking activists joined together by Globalink, a network committed to promote the fight against tobacco.
"We're almost in 2006, and the tobacco industry still tries to influence science. Many commercial bodies have an interest in funding health research to promote their products or their new technology. Even if the physician or scientist tries not to be influenced, and they follows the most restrict protocol, the fact that his research -- and in many cases even his salary -- are sponsored by the commercial company, can't be ignored."
In his letter to Globalink members, Geva-Haspil added: "There are ethical codes restricting funds of medical research by pharmaceutical companies, but apparently almost no one thought there was a need to set similar restrictions on tobacco companies' funds. Obviously, the ethical issues here are well beyond commercial aspects and involve the misleading perception that the tobacco company is actually interested in promoting research in favor of human health. [But] usually the purpose is merely to divert the responsibility from the tobacco company and its advertisement efforts to genes, environment or psychological characteristics of the smoker and help them to fend off lawsuits for product liability."
The ICA official added: "The WHO's FCTC doesn't address this issue either, and now there is an obvious and urgent need to do that. Following the series of articles in The Jerusalem Post, the Israel Cancer Association -- in conjunction with other health and scientific organization -- will try to persuade the Israel Ministry to address this issue at the first session of the conference of the parties to the FCTC in Geneva, in February 2006, and propose an amendment that will bar these attempts to influence science by banning contributions from tobacco companies and their subsidiaries and affiliates."
The Post tried to identify any other Israeli hospitals and scientific institutes that have received funding from tobacco companies for its research, but has so far been unsuccessful, except to note that the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot played a minor role of examining genetic material for Lerer's study, as tobacco companies are not required to disclose it and researchers must disclose such potential conflicts of interest only when their research articles are published. The Health Ministry said Tuesday that it has begun querying government hospitals it owns and operates, and so far none admitted to taking money for medical research from cigarette manufacturers.
The Hadassah Medical Organization (HMO) and its parent, the Hadassah Women's Zionist Organization of America, have been leaders in the fight against smoking by voluntarily making its two medical centers smoke-free prior to binding legislation and refusing to accept tobacco ads for Hadassah magazine. But they have both refused to comment beyond the HMO's statement at the outset that "the research conducted by Prof. Lerer is totally objective and unbiasedâ€¦ 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. They were not involved in how the research was conducted, the analysis of the data or its publication, in any way whatsoever. Any implication that non academic interests tainted the results is incorrect and insulting to Prof. Lerer."
Meanwhile, the ethics bureau of the Israel Medical Association, which does have regulations governing the use of pharmaceutical - but not tobacco -- company funding for medical research has appointed Dr. Tami Karmi to investigate the issue raised by The Post and decide what action to take.