VCU and Tobacco: A Long and Profitable History

Back in late May, I posted an opinion piece suggesting that The New York Times was correct in questioning the contractual relationship between Virginia Commonwealth University and Philip Morris USA. VCU seemed to be giving away the shop with research contracts that forbade discussion of their existence and required VCU to inform the tobacco giant right away if regulators or the media asked questions.

In Richmond, of course, the latter wasn’t really necessary since the Times-Dispatch, whose top brass has tight ties to VCU, decided there was no story after a very cursory look. I, on the other hand, started getting phone calls and e-mails from current and former members of the VCU community who were greatly concerned about their university and their own careers if VCU was seen as a supplicant for Big Tobacco. VCU’s reputation was already being trashed in the national research blogosphere.

Thus began a month-long reporting effort funded by Jim Bacon, the newly appointed editor of R’Biz, the business news component of which operates R’Biz. The story, “In Pursuit of the Golden Leaf,” is available on today’s

  • VCU’s medical school and predecessor schools had such tight ties with the American Tobacco Company in the 1930s and 1940s that it funded just about the entire pharmacology staffs. So dramatic were the ties that a Stanford University professor is titling an entire chapter on VCU “Sold, American” in his upcoming book on tobacco research. The less-than-flattering title suggest that the Medical College of Virginia had been bought completely by tobacco interests
  • VCU started to improve its research situation in 2000 after a debacle in which federal regulators shut down all human research at all of its schools. The academic research ringer hired to help boosted R&D at VCU but she left in 2005 critical of new ties between the school and Philip Morris USA.
  • Dr. Eugene Trani, president of VCU, and his staff were greatly involved in “Operation Peat Moss,” a secret and ultimately successful plan to convince Philip Morris USA to locate a major research facility at the faltering Virginia Biotechnology Research Park instead of the Research Triangle in North Carolina in 2004 and 2005.
  • While Philip Morris claims that much of the research it does in Richmond is limited to smokeless products such as snuff, evidence shows it is involved in a major effort to use respiration devices used in cigarette research as vehicles for dispensing drugs through the lungs to fight such diseases as diabetes.
  • Both the University of Virginia and Duke have accepted far more research money from Philip Morris than VCU has. But unlike VCU, they insisted on controlling the research and make their relations public.
  • Some VCU faculty say there are fearful of Trani’s wrath if they speak out against the Philip Morris contracts. Yet, there appears to be great confusion on campus about what is going on. Trani’s absence at Havard this summer isn’t helping.
  • Trani has appointed a task force to explore his school’s corporate contracts. But the very administrator who oversaw negotiations with Philip Morris is heading the task force, which has decided he is not a conflict of interest. It remains to be seen if the task force will force change or sweep the controversy under the rug. The first public meeting is slated for July 16.

There’s a lot more in the opus available on line. Check it out.

Peter Galuszka

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


  1. Tyler Craddock Avatar
    Tyler Craddock

    It seems to me that if Philip Morris is paying for the research, then they should control its conduct and dissemination, not VCU and not the anti-tobacco zealots and various other malcontents who are running amok in today’s society.

    I do wonder if Duke and UVa are also at arms-length with others who fund their research; if not, that is one heck of a double standard.

    It is troubling that the so-called critics all want to hide behind the proverbial “mommy’s skirt” of anonymity. After all, to criticize the lack of openness while not being willing to state your own identity sounds to me like the heights of hypocrisy.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    You seem to be assuming that universities are nothing more than private consulting companies which completely misses the point.

    Peter Galuszka

  3. Tyler Craddock Avatar
    Tyler Craddock

    Actually, here is what I am saying (so you won’t be confused about my “missing the point”):

    1. If any company pays for research, it is theirs, not the researcher’s — this should be the case for any entity that engages researchers — it seems the issue is not one of researchers being asked to fake results, but one of who owns the research product

    2. If there are “arms-length” restrictions that are appropriate for tobacco money (like at Duke and UVa), then we need to be sure that those same restrictions apply to any research money

    3. It is hypocritical for certain “anonymous” faculty members to hide in the shadows and throw rocks at VCU for not being more “open” — if these folks want “openness” they need to come out into the open themselves

    I know that universities are not private consulting companies, but that does not change the fact that the entity paying for research should have first rights to how the research is conducted and how the results are disseminated.

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    Not exactly. Universities have a mission to research and share their findings. They can do some confidential research. For example, the University of California at Berekely has done highly secret nuclear weapons design work for the governemnt for six decades. But that’s national security. I hardly think that Philip Morris USA is “national security” although Philip Morris sure acts like it is.
    Traditionally, any research a university does should be placed in a general pool of knowledge. Schools also need corporate funding. But this doesn’t mean they are vassals for companies. There’s quite a bit about research and academic freedom written. CHeck it out. Universities need to balance the money they get, however, with the purpose of the research. Some of the more pretigious schools refuse tobacco money all together. So, I simply do not buy your argument that it’s perfectly OK if PM USA buys into whatever university it wants and they should own all of the research and keep whatever they want secret. It’s NOT ok.
    As for the anonymity, yes, that bothered me, but when I attended some meetings of the faculty, I understood they were frightened about being fired for speaking out. Hell, I went to a liberal northeastern school in the waning years of the Vietnam War. No way this would happen. But that was a different time and place. It says a lot about VCU that such conditions exist, either real or imagined.

    Peter Galuszka

  5. Tyler Craddock Avatar
    Tyler Craddock

    We just see it differently. If you pay for the research, it is yours, not the researcher’s.

    I guess in your world, corporations should just fork over money (in addition to the billions they are already paying in taxes) with no say over how it is spent.

    Until those critical of VCU are willing to step forward, I will have a hard time thinking they are anything more than a small band of malcontents who do not have the guts to step forward and speak their minds.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    Yes we certainly disagree. Your concept that corporations shouldn’t have to “fork over” money to universities without having a say in how it is spent completely misses the point of universities, research and academic freedom.
    Universities are designed to expand knowledge for the greater public good. They are not narrowly focused consulting firms. Their mission is not to help corporations make a profit. Big money companies and powerful politicians should not be allowed dictate who does what at a university because that corrupts the entire purpose.
    Maybe you don’t understand this because you are a lobbyist.

    Peter Galuszka

  7. Jody L. Wilcox Avatar
    Jody L. Wilcox

    I have to agree with Tyler on this one…When I was involved with all those startups in the late 90’s and invented several computer programs for these companies even though I was an “independent” contractor and when I did “independent” research and development work for NORAD on certain applications for missile defense, the people paying for the use of my brain retained the research output and products not I (I only wish I did, trust me.) If a university receives money to do research at the behest of a benefactor, then dear anonymous, they are acting as a consulting firm….the days when Universities can spend a benefactor’s money and not produce anything of value for the one providing the resources should end (if it really ever existed in the first place.) You also overstate that a Universities mission is to share research “findings” with the world for free… since most research is done through a grant process the vast majority of research findings have first been delivered to the granter and the grantor usually is the entity that distributes the information not the researcher in my experience……Thanks and have a nice day

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    To me, the most disturbing fact is that VCU violated its own policy in signing this restrictive deal with PMUSA.

  9. Tyler Craddock Avatar
    Tyler Craddock

    Maybe you don’t understand this because you are a lobbyist.

    Wow. You really had to dig deep in the old intellectual barrel for that one 🙂

    I am also a husband, father, VT alumni/fan, Dallas Cowboys fan and Methodist. I wonder how much those traits affect my understanding; probably about as much as my profession.

    I do think it is important to drill down what this is really about: specifically, the use rights to research paid for by an entity outside the university. No one is saying that anyone (including Philip Morris) directed the outcomes of the research or asked anybody to fake something. Instead, the question centers on use rights when the research itself is funded by an outside entity.

    Now, if a private sector entity donates to the capital or other similar university development campaign, does that give them ability to direct things? No, of course not. My only argument is that it is fair for Philip Morris to have the distribution or use rights to specific research for which they pay.

  10. Anonymous Avatar

    Well, Tyler,
    Philip Morris does have a history of redirecting research (or killing it completely) if it doesn’t like the results. For evidence, check out the Legacy Files as part of the Master Settlement Agreement of 1998.
    Re: “My only argument is that it is fair for Philip Morris to have the distribution or use rights to specific research for which they pay.”
    I have read or talked do a number of academic freedom specialists from the American Association of University Professors, to various national universities and associations, who say that VCU should never have gotten into bed with PM USA in the first place. Why? (1) PM’s end products while legal are deadly and (2) PM has a reputation for polluting research.
    Also, I do not apologize for noting your job. You do seem to be coming at this from the point of view of a lobbyist willing to dismiss some serious and concerned VCU faculty as “malcontents” because they are questionning the Big Business ionterest you represent. Tyler, that’s a really cheap shot. What’s your purpose, anyway? To improve the “business climate” in the Old Dominion?

    Peter Galuszka

  11. Tyler Craddock Avatar
    Tyler Craddock

    Peter — I want be perfectly clear about something because I fear that you may be confused: my blog comments are my own personal opinions and no one else’s.

    If the VCU faculty members you cite were that “serious and concerned”, they should quit hiding behind the veil of anonymity. My point is that because they continue to do so, it makes it tough to take them seriously, especially when they are the ones calling for more openness in the process. Yes, they have the right to ask questions just like you and me; but, they also need to accept the responsibility that comes with that right.

  12. Anonymous Avatar

    OK, Tyler,
    Point taken and accepted on the lobbyist thing.
    But the fact that so many VCU faculty do not want their names used raises a point you fail to address, but rather, use to dismiss them.
    As I have tried to say, I am amazed that such fear exists in modern day academia. It sure wouldn’t have happened during my day in the early 1970s.
    The question is why? Any ideas?

    Peter Galuszka

  13. Tyler Craddock Avatar
    Tyler Craddock


    I don’t know. I really want to think that their fear is overstated, but, I am not omniscient; I might be wrong. As I understand it, though, it is darn near next to impossible to fire tenured faculty.

    That said, anyone (including tenured or non-tenured faculty, staff, students, etc.) should feel free to state their views on university matters (or any other matter or issue) and not be in fear of losing their job. If that is not the case on any college campus in Virginia, then the issue is much larger than the contents or dissemination of a Philip Morris-funded study.

    If they truly are in danger of being fired for speaking out, then that is a big problem that needs to be addressed pronto, and I would be the first to admit that I was wrong on that count.

    One other clarification that I need to make occurred to me on the ride home. VCU is certainly free to turn down the research requests from PM. While I strongly believe that it is ok for PM to insist on control of the findings, VCU is certainly free to refuse projects funded with that stipulation (or all tobacco money for that matter), and while we can debate whether or not VCU should accept these conditions (hey, as someone who went through grad school, I can understand the concern), my point was only that I felt that it was perfectly legitimate for PM to want control of the research results it paid to produce (again, another point we can/have already debated).

  14. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    I want to commend Peter for doing a superb job of researching the VCU-Philip Morris story and unearthing critical context for understanding the story. I also applaud him for keeping his personal views out of the story, and expressing them here in the blog instead.

    However, I don’t think we have enough info to condemn VCU.

    There are legitimate issues of academic freedom at stake, and Peter has articulated them well. On the other hand, I don’t see a problem with doing research work for hire. No one’s holding a gun to the head of the researchers and telling them they have to agree to the terms Philip Morris is asking. And no one has been able to describe (due to PM’s secrecy clauses, admittedly) the exact nature of the work being done. Nor has anyone demonstrated that any research has been repressed in any way.

    It’s possible that, given the long-standing antagonism of many groups towards Philip Morris, that the company has inserted the restrictive clauses into the contracts not so much to repress data as to provide time to prepare a PR response to data that might reflect badly upon it. If they’re paying for the research, it’s hard to blame them. We really don’t know what PM was thinking with those contract.

    Given PM’s history of abusing research, the public is entitled to be suspicious of the company’s motives. But suspicions are not proof.

    For all the information that Peter uncovered, I don’t think we’ve gotten to the bottom of this.

  15. Anonymous Avatar

    Then keep digging!

    Public and academic interest demands it.

    Its time for Trani to retire.

  16. Anonymous Avatar

    “For all the information that Peter uncovered, I don’t think we’ve gotten to the bottom of this.”

    What exactly does “getting to the bottom of this” mean?

    Re: your point that VCU doesn’t have to get into contracts with Philip Morris. Like, Duh! Then why do they do so?

    So we’re all OK? Right?

    Peter Galuszka

  17. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Do we pay taxes to support Universities so that they can do private research?

    There are plenty of private researchers and Private entities in the business of for-fee research so my question is – what should a public university be doing private research in the first place?

    I admit to knowing almost zilch about the public policy aspects of this.

    If VCU were a private university – it would appear to me to not be a problem for that university to do this kind of research for another private company.

    But with a public University, some just doesn’t feel quite right to me.

    Bonus Question: If the bigger realm – would this arrangement for PM be acceptable for all Virginia Public Universities – UVA, VaTEch, etc?

  18. Anonymous Avatar

    I think you already have the answer to one of your questions. My story noted that both UVA and Duke — universities with greater academic reputat9ions than VCU’s –do accept tobacco money but they are grants and not “research service agreements” as far as I can tell. The schools control the research and keep it. They publicize their arrangements. In VCU’s case, PM gets an extra-long review period before VCU can publish anything, gets the results of the research and gets to keep it all secret.
    That might be just fine and dandy with Jim Bacon and Virginia State Chamber of Commerce lobbyists, but as you can see, it is a very different way of handling research.

    Peter Galuszka

  19. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I would think the justification for a public university to do research would be so that the results could contribute to the body of knowledge.

    What would be the benefit of a public university doing private research were the results would not be publically available?

    And we have a matter of salaries of those doing the research.

    Are those salaries paid for by taxpayers?

    If they are, then how can it be justified to have those folks essentially contracted out?

    If they are contracted out – does the state recover their salaries?

  20. Anonymous Avatar

    All good points. My understanding that the “research service agreements” typically involve a situation such as this:

    Let’s say a college has a big, well-equippped lab with lots of instruments and gear. A for-profit company wants to use the gear for a research project specific to its work and products. It goes to the school and offers to pay for the use of the gear and maybe a technician or a professor to advise. Usually, there will be some academic home for the results of the research, i.e. a published paper or somesuch. The company may get to review the contents of the paper just to make sure no proprietary information is released.
    This is how academics have described a research service agreement. Yet, some schools avoid or forbid them and there is almost never placed upon the deals the all inclusive secrecy granted to Philip Morris.
    An academic research expert at the Ameican Association of University Professors told me that in terms of ethics, there is no distinction or difference between research deals and basic research, althoug Trani is trying to split a hair on this issue. And we’ll never know what’s going on because Trani and VCU have agreed to such confidentiality.
    Read the blogs. Plenty of worthy academics say VCU is flat out wrong in the ethics of this. It does not preclude having universities do corporate research at all. It’s the type of deals and the advantages given PM by VCU.
    Now Jim Bacon and the Tyler Craddock can put their heads in the sand and say there is no problem, let’s jump in bed with companies like PM. But the larger communtiy says there is a problem and it goes one hell of a lot farther than Monroe Park or the Va Biotech Park whether the locals want to acknowledge it or not.

    Peter Galuszka

  21. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Peter, you’ve partially persuaded me. I’ll back off from my previous statement when I said, “I don’t see a problem with doing research work for hire.”

    That was a hasty judgment on my part. Still, I’d like see all relevant facts and points of view aired before condemning VCU or giving it a pass.

    Unfortunately, only the VCU task force can make all the relevant facts available. And the decision to keep Frank Macrina in charge of the task force, passing judgment on contracts negotiated by his subordinates under his watch, makes it very difficult to believe that the evidence will be weighed objectively. If the task force exonerates VCU contracts with Philip Morris, it will do nothing to appease critics… in which case, the whole thing will be an exercise in futility.

  22. Tyler Craddock Avatar
    Tyler Craddock

    I still see no problem with research partnerships from tobacco companies. I have no problem with “tobacco money”.

    What does concern me, however, is the notion that folks are afraid to speak their mind for fear of losing their jobs. If that is going on, then we do have a problem and I would admit that I might have been hasty in calling the critics out for their anonymity. I have nothing against anonymous sources in cases where there could be retribution for speaking out publicly. While I think that absent the possibility of someone being on the receiving end of retribution, folks should disclose their identities, by no means should they be compelled to do so if they do not choose to do so; it is a personal choice that each person must make. Thus, as I said, perhaps I was hasty in making that judgment yesterday.

  23. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Here’s my standard.

    Is the “arrangement” – perceived by the public and their peers as scrupulous – as scrupulous as their peer institutions?

    This is how trust is maintained.

    If the folks involved do not see this as a trust issue – that could adversely affect their reputation – I do wonder… about their judgment.

  24. Anonymous Avatar

    To Tyler Craddock –
    I have several comments.
    First, as a behaviorist, I learned early in my education that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. In the case of PM, they have an exceptionally LONG history of using and abusing research and science to meet their needs. And when it doesn’t, they eliminate the problem (unconvinced — google Victor DeNoble, former PM researcher, who was promised (in writing) by PM that he could do research with total scientific freedom. But when his first study showed nicotine was addictive, senior PM officials fired him the next morning (having first killed all his animals and making his lab “disappear” as if we were living in a sci fi movie). So much for a “contract” that specified he had freedom to publish….It wasn’t until years later, his career ruined, that he was finally asked to testify in the tobacco hearings and had a chance to tell the truth.
    I’m sorry, but a company that was willing to act in such an egregious manner not that long ago, does not suddenly change its stripes and decide to “do good”.
    And that isn’t just my opinion – it is fact. Substantive data exist to confirm PM continues to operate in a “business as usual” manner. To illustrate, one VCU faculty concern about the NY Times article was that it represented only the tip of the iceberg. Who knows what else might be in place at VCU, and certainly there is currently ample fear about PM and the Dean of the VCU SOM (Dr Strauss) “collaborating” on launching a PM-funded “Women’s Health Research Center” (to the tune of $20 mil). The Center’s goal would be research and services focused on eliminating the dramatic health disparities in infant mortality that exist in the City of Richmond (e.g., African American babies are much more likely to die prematurely than Caucasian babies). Interestingly, research has consistently found that cigarette smoking during pregnancy is a significant contributor to these health disparities and that rates of prematurity could be substantively reduced if women did not smoke while pregnant.
    It is also well known that companies like PM deliberately market cigarettes to African Americans. In addition, they are more likely to place billboards advertising smoking in low-income neighborhoods. (but I’m sure you think that’s just a “chance” occurrence….) Do you really believe it is an accident that Congress recently passed a bill banning cigarette flavorings (which have been shown to encourage adolescents to try smoking – and once they’ve tried – the probabilities that they will go on to be dependent are very high). Well curiously, the one flavoring specifically excluded from the Congressional Bill was menthol. If you don’t know, menthol is widely preferred by African Americans as compared to Caucasians. (see CDC article by Dr T. Pechacek for the full story on this). So bottom line – it remains “OK” to put menthol in cigarettes — which allows PM to continue its efforts to specifically entice inner city Black youth to smoke, while we can rest assured caucasian middle-class suburban teens will now be less likely to start smoking. How morally and ethically wrong is that? (and incidentally, PM was the lead tobacco industry involved in lobbying Congress to exclude menthol).
    A company that continues such practices with no interest in changing the things that could in fact make a huge difference – and instead tries to earn public favor by giving an academic institution like VCU (with a mission to improve health in the community it serves) $20 mil to eliminate the very disparities PM continues to create seems like the ultimate in hypocrisy. For VCU to even consider such a venture — seems like the makings of another NY Times article (or maybe a movie deal is in the wings – for those of you who haven’t seen “The Insider”, it’s a great depiction of how calculating the tobacco industry can (and has) been in its efforts to look good (while continuing to cause premature illness and death).
    And sadly they are miles ahead of other ad companies and certainly way ahead of academia. They are so good at what they do – because they have the money to hire the best to do their bidding.
    In my opinion, they are not at all like other corporations. We make marijuana and cocaine illegal, yet tobacco kills more people and PM is free to continue to manufacture and sell it at will (even after we now know they had this knowledge years before it became public, and deliberately hid it so they could continue to sell cigarettes). That past behavior should make VCU say “thanks, but no thanks”. But since President Trani sits on the corporate board for the tobacco corporations (at a tune of $40,000/yr) — I guess that’s unlikely. And the fact that the citizens of Richmond don’t see that as a MAJOR conflict of interest boggles my mind!
    I thought VCU was an academic university and as such, it should view research (contractual, grant funded, etc) – as SCIENCE. The goal of science is to discover truth, not to manufacture findings that meet the needs of a corporation like PM. What message does this send to the students of VCU? Do we want them to think if
    you’re middle class and white, slight efforts are being taken to change your chances of starting to smoke (and therefore die younger) — but if you’re poor and Black – forget it. In that case – it is “business as usual” – so break out another pack of cigarettes.
    Lastly – in terms of VCU faculty paranoia — the “correlation” between a senior VP for Research “leaving” the university in close temporal relationship to speaking out about PM funding at VCU (and subsequently being unwilling to comment on record) I think gives faculty ample evidence to feel “worried”. And while tenure might guarantee continued employment, it says nothing about space, resources, or promotion. So I think that paranoia is justified. What’s that saying – if it looks like a duck, and it sounds like a duck….it just might be a duck…? Well I’ve heard there’s alot of quacking going on at VCU these days..

  25. Tyler Craddock Avatar
    Tyler Craddock

    Anon 9:16,

    I have made clear my position in previous posts. I appreciate your sharing yours with me.

  26. Anonymous Avatar

    On the faculty – even tenured – fears of retribution, here's a partial explanation. While tenured faculty cannot be fired for this, they can see their dept budgets cut, which forces them to let go of staff and untenured faculty, not buy needed equipment or supplies, not move into renovated research space, etc. It's subtle and cannot be easily flagged as retaliation for their speaking out against the University's behavior in negotiating work-for-hire contracts or partnering with the tobacco industry. However, the end result is the same: they do not get the resources needed, cannot secure grant funding, cannot publish, and so on.

    Again, at the larger dept level,if budgets are trimmed, people could lose their jobs, and the senior tenured faculty are recognize this and do not want to endanger their junior colleagues (as was mentioned in the NYT article by the unnamed tenured professor).

    If the Dean of the School of Medicine (who is also currently in charge of the emerging School of Public Health) supports the Philip Morris ties and in fact is seeking $20 million from Philip Morris to fund his research in preterm birth (& more), then faculty who protest either the nature of the agreement or the nature of the sponsor could discover that budget shortfalls might fall heavily on their dept. Not saying this will happen – but this describes some of the concern in a nutshell.

  27. Wilbur Mills Avatar
    Wilbur Mills

    Nicotine is the addictive drug in tobacco smoke that causes smokers to continue to smoke. Addicted smokers need enough nicotine over a day to ‘feel normal’ – to satisfy cravings or control their mood. How much nicotine a smoker needs determines how much smoke they are likely to inhale, no matter what type of cigarette they smoke.

Leave a Reply