Tobacco Industry Seeks Academic Data to Fight Lawsuit
An attempt by the tobacco industry to obtain from 10 universities a "half-century's worth of documents, notes and personal files" related to research on smoking has turned into a battle over "academic freedom and the confidentiality of scholarly research," the New York Times reports. The nation's largest tobacco companies subpoenaed the documents late last year in order to bolster their defense in the Justice Department's lawsuit against them, which alleges that beginning in the 1950s, the companies misled and defrauded the American public by failing to disclose what they knew about the health risks of smoking. Lawyers for the companies say that the government-financed academic research will show that any public "comments made by tobacco executives were 'entirely reasonable,' given the state of scientific knowledge at the time." In addition, the lawyers say that the documents will demonstrate the "depths of what the government knew" about the risks of smoking, "despite its unwillingness to regulate tobacco."
But as the deadlines for turning over the documents "lapse," only one of the universities -- North Carolina State -- has agreed to hand over its information, while the other nine -- Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University, New York University School of Medicine, the University of Arizona, the University of Kentucky and four campuses in the University of California system -- have refused to do so and are "digging in for a drawn-out legal battle, promising to turn over the information only under orders from a judge," the Times reports. "It's the first time I've ever encountered such a broad effort. The tobacco companies have commenced nothing short of a campaign of harassment against the academic institutions that discovered smoking is injurious to the public health," Estelle Fishbein, Johns Hopkins' general counsel, said. The universities say that turning over the documents related to studies that were eventually published would "breach common confidentiality rules ... since most of the people who agree to take part in smoking studies do so only because they are guaranteed anonymity," the Times reports. And Christopher Patti, an attorney for the University of California, said the tobacco industry's actions could discourage further research on smoking. However, lawyers for the tobacco companies said they were seeking the documents simply to counter the government's arguments. "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 representing RJ Reynolds, said, adding, "These subpoenas certainly weren't brought for the purposes of harassing anybody" (Winter, New York Times, 1/20).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.