NIH Director Francis Collins told a House subcommittee that he was “troubled” by a paper in which a prominent tobacco control expert, who is funded by NCI, claims to have found a relationship between tobacco companies and the Tea Party conservative movement.
The paper in question appeared in Tobacco Control, a peer-reviewed journal published by British Medical Journal Group. Drawing on documents dating back to the 1980s and obtained from tobacco companies, the authors point to several instances in which the Tea Party and its predecessor organizations appear to act as proxies for tobacco interests. The paper cites an NCI grant that supports analysis of tobacco industry documents.
The paper’s senior author is Stanton Glantz, professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco, a member of the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, and director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education.
The paper states that “rather than being a purely grassroots movement that spontaneously developed in 2009, the Tea Party has developed over time, in part through decades of work by the tobacco industry and other corporate interests. It is important for tobacco control advocates in the USA and internationally, to anticipate and counter Tea Party opposition to tobacco control policies and ensure that policymakers, the media and the public understand the longstanding connection between the tobacco industry, the Tea Party and its associated organizations.”
At a hearing of the House Labor HHS Appropriations Subcommittee March 6, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), a physician who serves on the committee, challenged the appropriateness of NCI supporting what amounts to Glantz’s investigative work, as opposed to basic or clinical cancer research.
The BMJ paper “alleged that somehow the Tea Party had its origin in 1980s, with tobacco funding, which is pretty incredible, because, I mean, I’m a Tea Party guy,” Harris said. “I was there when it was established in 2009. I know the origins. I find it incredible that NIH funding is funding this… Dr. Collins, what methods does the NIH have in this kind of research takes dollars from cancer research and other important vital research—what does the NIH do to universities that waste federal tax dollars this way?”
Collins didn’t defend either the NCI grant or the Glantz paper. Instead, the NIH director said that Glantz’s paper falls outside the objectives of NCI grants.
“I, too, am quite troubled about this particular circumstance,” Collins said. “Dr. Stanton Glantz, who is the author of that article, has been a funded grantee of the NIH’s cancer institute for 14 years and has done some very important work in tobacco control over those years, and is considered by peers to be among the best in the field. If you look carefully at the acknowledgements at the end of this particular paper, which came as a surprise to us as well, it does cite two different grants from the NCI.
There is also wording there, and maybe you can read it off to us, which says that this particular work and this particular paper was not suggested or encouraged by the NIH. It is on its own.”
NCI Director Harold Varmus did not testify at the hearing.
Glantz said he was surprised by this characterization of his work.
“I was very troubled by it,” Glantz said to The Cancer Letter. “We just published an important paper in the leading specialty journal in the field, after extensive peer review. The work is completely within the scope of the grant. It is Aim Two of the grant—to understand how the tobacco companies work to prevent effective tobacco control policies, including through the creation of third parties, which is what the Tea Party connection is.
“The grant, when it was peer reviewed got a 119, which was the second percentile. The study section specifically highlighted the importance of this kind of research to cancer control.
“I don’t understand what the problem is.”