Tobacco giant funds bad gene hunt programme

The Guardian

London, May 30

Secret documents reveal Britain’s largest tobacco company has gone to great lengths to produce scientific evidence clouding the link between smoking and lung cancer. According to newly unearthed internal company papers, BAT has spent millions of pounds funding university research to back the controversial theory of ‘genetic predisposition’, which argues that some people are more susceptible to lung cancer than others because they have ‘bad genes’.

The tobacco industry is keen to advance the theory because it implies that only around one in 10 smokers — those with ‘bad genes’ — are at a ‘heightened risk’ from smoking and need to quit. In recent years a number of scientists have used the theory to raise the possibility that people will soon be able to take a genetic test to see if they are more likely to suffer from lung cancer. But most scientists scorn the theory. They point to several studies which found no significant link between someone’s genetic make-up and lung cancer. They also say the tobacco lobby’s research ignores other diseases such as emphysema.

Now it has emerged that, in an attempt to provide itself with more ammunition to advance the theory, BAT — whose brands include Benson & Hedges, John Player and Rothmans — has been bankrolling research into ‘genetic predisposition’ at several British universities. According to the environmental campaign group Gene Watch, research into ‘bad genes’ was by far the largest area of university funding by BAT between 1990 and 1995. In conjunction with the anti-smoking group Ash, Gene Watch is preparing to publish a list of UK scientists who have received BAT funding but not declared it in their research papers, something which opens them up to the accusation that they failed to declare a conflict of interest. “Geneticists who take tobacco money are dancing with the devil,” said Helen Wallace, spokeswoman for Gene Watch, “The public has been misled for decades by scientists who think they’ve found the gene for lung cancer. All smokers are at risk of early death or serious disease.” The group obtained the documents after trawling BAT’s huge depository in Guildford, Surrey. After a series of court cases the company was forced to open the depository to the public. But it has been accused of making papers difficult to find by not indexing them or by blanking out dates.

Academics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine are attempting to post a copy of every document on a website with an index, a move that would give the anti-tobacco lobby a powerful weapon in future court cases. Already the academics have found evidence that some of the documents have been tampered with. They point to one disclosing BAT’s marketing strategy to ‘illiterate low-income 16-year-olds in the Middle East’ which has been crudely changed to ‘18-year-olds’ in places. In recent years the idea of a ‘testing kit’ which would allow smokers to work out whether they had ‘bad genes’ has captured the attention of politicians and the public. A memo from PR firm Burson-Marsteller to its client, tobacco giant Philip Morris, written in 1996, suggests the test would allow ‘the non-susceptible population to smoke with a clear conscience’.

Last September, Professor Zvi Livneh, of Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, made headlines when he said he was three years away from developing such a test. His research suggested some smokers are 10 times as likely as others to get the disease.

However Livneh received more than $500,000 between 1985 and 1991 from the Council For Tobacco Research, the tobacco lobby’s research arm. Livneh could not be contacted for comment. It is unclear if he declared the grants in his research paper submitted to the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.