Tobacco industry funded 'good science,' witness says
WHEELING, W.Va. (AP) -- The tobacco industry created an independent, scientific body to study the links between smoking and health, and neither company executives nor their lawyers influenced which research projects were funded, a scientist testified Tues
Harmon McAllister, former scientific director for the New York-based Council for Tobacco Research, denied accusations the council was an industry shield formed solely for its public relations value and that it funded largely irrelevant research.
"If good science is really good and someone derives a public relations benefit from that, I don't see a problem with it," McAllister said. However, he added, that was not the purpose behind the agency that employed him for nearly 17 years.
McAllister testified for the defense as a class-action lawsuit against four tobacco companies drew closer to a conclusion. Lawyers for R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris, Lorillard and Brown & Williamson planned to call their final witness Wednesday, and closing arguments could come as early as Monday.
Some 250,000 healthy West Virginia smokers are suing the tobacco companies for an industry-funded, medical screening program that they say could lead to early detection of lung cancer, emphysema and chronic obstructive lung disease.
The smokers claim cigarettes are defective products that increase the likelihood of illness. Their case -- essentially structured as a product liability lawsuit with medical monitoring as the proposed remedy for wronged consumers -- is the first of its kind to be tried in the United States.
The tobacco companies say smokers have long known the risks of smoking, and that the industry has done all it can to minimize the health hazards. They also contend the medical monitoring program the smokers want would do nothing to change the outcome of a disease.
The industry created the Council for Tobacco Research in 1954, after pledging in newspaper ads nationwide that it would thoroughly investigate claims that smoking causes disease. The council funneled industry dollars to universities, hospitals and other scientists but never conducted its own research.
By the time it was dissolved in 1998, the council had distributed some $300 million in grants to 1,100 researchers who conducted about 1,500 experiments, McAllister said.
Projects could not focus on commercial aspects of cigarettes that would affect competition, so research did not focus on particular brands, he said. Rather, the work related to things that were common to all cigarettes.
Otherwise, there were no restrictions on which projects the council could fund, he said. A board of respected, independent scientific advisers convened to review and rate proposed research projects, and the council's scientific director then assessed their rankings.
The projects often involved areas that the industry would have rather avoided, McAllister said.
Once-secret industry documents shown to the jury revealed that tobacco executives hoped to guide the council's funding decisions, recommending among themselves the topics to either pursue or avoid.
McAllister, however, said those memos never reached the council. The purpose of the council was not to deny that smoking causes disease, and much of its work, in fact, proved such links, he said.
In one industry document, the author concluded the Council for Tobacco Research "did virtually no useful work and cost a vast amount of money."
"I obviously wouldn't agree with that statement," McAllister said.
He also disagreed with evalations in other documents that labeled the council "a public relations operation" and "the best and cheapest insurance the tobacco industry could buy."