Academics face court clash with tobacco giants
A fierce debate over academic rights is nearing a showdown as the deadline approaches for nine leading US universities to hand over 50 years of research notes and personal diaries to American tobacco conglomerates.
A group of cigarette manufacturers led by Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds has issued subpoenas for the documents, which detail research on the health effects of smoking dating back to the 1940s, as part of their defense in a multi-billion-dollar federal lawsuit which accuses them of defrauding the American public.
The deadlines for submissions fall over the next few weeks, but all but one of the 10 universities targeted have formally refused to release the documents, which include rough drafts and personal correspondence.
"This is a fishing expedition, an incredibly over-broad demand asking us to unearth thousands and thousands of documents from studies conducted as long as 50 years ago," Dennis O'Shea, a spokesman for Johns Hopkins University, said yesterday.
"There's no reason to believe that anything in these documents, if they could even be found, would add anything to what is already in the published scientific literature, and so it's hard to see this subpoena by the tobacco companies as anything other than harassment of the scientists and their academic institutions."
Many of the scientists involved, he added, were either long retired or dead.
Harvard, New York University, the universities of Arizona and Kentucky and four parts of the University of California system have also objected to the subpoenas. Only North Carolina State University handed over a small collection of documents last week.
"The request is too broad even to begin to address," said Paul Vanbooven, legal counsel for the University of Kentucky. "Fishing out everything that deals with tobacco - there would just be so much you wouldn't be able to do it."
Estelle Fishbein, general counsel for Johns Hopkins, suggested the subpoenas were an attempt to punish those who had shown smoking to be detrimental to health, telling the New York Times they represented "a serious infringement upon the academic freedom and rights of our faculty".
The tobacco companies hope to use the information to establish two seemingly opposing points: first, that the state of scientific research meant they could not have been expected to warn of the dangers of smoking, and, second, that the government may have known enough to regulate the cigarette trade, yet chose not to do so.
"We don't believe that the justice department's suit has merit, but as long as it's before us, we have to defend ourselves," Jonathan Redgrave, a lawyer for RJ Reynolds, told the New York Times.
The federal lawsuit, launched by President Clinton in 1999, accuses the firms of conspiring "to defraud and mislead" the US population, and seeks damages of more than $20bn (Â£14bn) a year for the preceding 45 years, as well as forcing the industry to finance anti-smoking education.