University of California research laboratories may soon lose funding from tobacco companies, pending the results of an on-going debate among the UC Regents, top faculty administrators, interest groups and scientists.

Tobacco companies have funded many UC research projects – including research on tobacco and smoking – and are currently helping pay for about 19 studies on the UC San Diego, Berkeley, Los Angeles and Davis campuses. The Board of Regents, however, may decide at its May meeting to stem the money flow due to recent concerns over conflicts of interest and other ethical implications.

The possible ban on funding would only apply to tobacco-related studies funded by tobacco companies, such as Philip Morris.

“Many universities around the world have adopted policies to decline money from cigarette companies for research,” said Marcia Brown-Machen, the city of Berkeley Public Health Dept.’s tobacco prevention program director. “Right now, the University of California is the only university that is in this position to have to take money from the tobacco companies; we are forbidden to decline the funds.”

Whether Brown-Machen’s philosophy is universally shared will be up to the UC Academic Senate to determine. The senate, a system-wide decision-making body composed of faculty, has been charged by the Regents to more thoroughly discuss whether or not the proposed funding restrictions would impinge upon researchers’ academic freedoms.

Several parties are currently at odds over the issue. Regent Judith L. Hopkins has expressed her opinion that the decision to accept or decline funding from tobacco companies should be left to the researchers whose studies would be affected. She said at the January Regents’ meeting that it is an issue of academic freedom.

However, critics such as the American Cancer Society and UC San Francisco professor Stan Glantz counter that tobacco companies influence the outcomes of studies when they fund researchers.

In 2004, when Berkeley researchers decided to stop accepting tobacco funding, the Academic Senate ruled that only the Regents – and not individual entities within universities – had the power to make such a decision.

According to Kimberly Homer, campaign organizer for the Campaign to Defend Academic Integrity, many skeptics believe that refusing tobacco funding could set a precedent, leading to the cessation of funding from other industries. The Campaign to Defend Academic Integrity is an independent group opposed to tobacco dollars being used to fund UC research.

“The faculty thinks that if they stop [getting] funding from tobacco companies, then we’ll stop getting money from pharmaceutical companies and the energy industry,” Homer said. “If we say tobacco companies are bad, they could say oil and pharmaceutical companies are bad too. Who are we not going to get money from next? The tobacco companies are not comparable to other research sources.”

In November 2006, the Academic Senate recommended that the Regents not restrict tobacco-company funding because of the academic freedom issue. However, after the board decided in January to revisit the issue at its May meeting, it asked Senate members to conduct additional research on the matter and release a recommendation by April 13.

According to Glantz, research funding provided by tobacco companies has been an issue at the UC level since 2001, when faculty and students from several UC campuses suggested that researchers stop accepting money from cigarette companies for research. They cited prior allegations of fraud, such as the UCLA case in which tobacco-funded study results were allegedly influenced by the relationship between the researcher and the tobacco industry.

James Enstrom, who is a research professor at the UCLA School of Public Health, claimed that there was substantial data to prove secondhand smoke may not cause lung cancer and heart disease in nonsmokers. His assertions were based on a study partially funded by the Center for Indoor Air Research, a research group the American Cancer Society claims is affiliated with Philip Morris.

“Enstrom was caught with his hand in the cookie jar,” Brown-Machen said. “The tobacco companies have been guilty on so many counts. Some researchers are not as ethical as we hope them to be.”

Brown-Machen said she has been working with UC Berkeley Butt Out!, an anti-smoking group, for the last six years to persuade the UC Regents to decline tobacco company research funding as other universities have in the past.

Presently, Glantz said, the amount companies in the tobacco industry like Philip Morris USA, the largest tobacco company in the United States, provide is financially miniscule in light of the overall $4 billion invested in UC research. Thus, the loss of funding would not harm the UC’s financial status.

“I think the university shouldn’t be involved with [tobacco funding],” Glantz said. “It hurts the university’s integrity and reputation.”