Cigarette company funds NEJM lung cancer study

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A New York Times investigation has revealed that a New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) study, which found that 80 percent of lung cancer deaths could be prevented through widespread use of CT scans, was partly funded by a cigarette company.

Claudia Henschke, MD, of Weill Cornell Medical College, published the study in the October 2006 issue of the NEJM.

A small notatation at the end of the NEJM study, indicated that it had been financed in part by the charity Foundation for Lung Cancer: Early Detection, Prevention & Treatment. A review of tax records by the NY Times shows that the foundation was underwritten almost entirely by $3.6 million in grants from the parent company of the Liggett Group, maker of Liggett Select, Eve, Grand Prix, Quest and Pyramid cigarette brands.

The foundation received four grants from the Vector Group, Liggett’s parent company, from 2000 to 2003.

Jeffrey M. Drazen, MD, editor-in-chief of the NEJM, told the NY Times that he was surprised. “In the seven years that I’ve been here, we have never knowingly published anything supported by” a cigarette maker, Drazen said.

An increasing number of universities do not accept grants from cigarette makers, and a growing awareness of the influence that companies can have in regards to research outcomes has led nearly all medical journals and associations to demand that researchers accurately disclose financing sources, according to the NY Times.

Vector issued a press release on Dec. 4, 2000, stating that it intended to give $2.4 million to Weill Cornell to finance Henschke’s research. However, no mention was made of the foundation, begun so hastily that its 2000 tax return stated “not yet organized,” the NY Times reported.

Paul Caminiti, a Vector spokesman, confirmed that the company donated $3.6 million to the foundation over three years. However, Caminiti told the NY Times that the company “had no control or influence over the research.” 

However, this revelation has angered many cancer advocates and researchers.

“If you’re using blood money, you need to tell people you’re using blood money,” said Otis Brawley, MD, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. The society gave Henschke more than $100,000 in grants from 2004 to 2007, money it would not have provided had it known of Liggett’s grants, Brawley told the NY Times.

In an email to the NY Times, Henschke and David Yankelevitz, MD, the foundation’s secretary-treasurer, wrote, “It seems clear that you are trying to suggest that Cornell was trying to conceal this gift, which is entirely false.”

“The gift was announced publicly, the advocacy and public health community knew about it, it is quite easy to look it up on the internet, its board has independent Cornell faculty on it, and it was fully disclosed to grant funding organizations,” they wrote, adding that the Vector grant represented a small part of the study’s overall cost. Yet, they also noted that the foundation no longer accepts grants from tobacco companies, the NY Times reported.

Henschke’s work, while controversial among cancer researchers, has been embraced by many lung-cancer advocacy organizations, which have pushed for legislation in California, New York and Massachusetts, to create trust funds to pay for lung cancer screening.