Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Town Meeting About Tobacco-Funded Research in Academic Medicine

We have posted about the controversies arising from recently revealed research agreements between Richmond, Virginia based Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and tobacco company Philip Morris. These were first publicly discussed in May in a New York Times article. As we posted here, the main issues were that the research agreements themselves were secret; the agreements apparently gave Philip Morris control over all publications arising from the research, since they defined all products of the work as proprietary information belonging to Philip Morris; and that research for hire on behalf of a tobacco company, given that tobacco products have known severe health risks and no health benefits, seems to go against the mission of a medical school and academic medical center. We also noted that the university administration's apparent lack of qualms about its relationship with Philip Morris might have been related to its president's role as a leader of a tobacco company. (He sits on the board of Universal Corp, a tobacco buyer, processor, and distributor.) Finally, we just observed how little attention this subject has gotten in Richmond's major news outlet.

VCU just held a "town meeting" that allowed faculty and students to comment on or question this recent unpleasantness. The meeting was covered by, the Associated Press, and, to its credit, the Richmond Times-Dispatch. According to the latter,

Francis Macrina, vice president of research at Virginia Commonwealth University and chairman of a task force on corporate-sponsored research, told a gathering tonight that the university made a mistake in its deal with cigarette giant Philip Morris.

Macrina said a confidentiality clause in the deal appeared to offer secrecy to the company.

'It won't happen again,' he said during the town-hall meeting at the Kontos Building on the university's MCV campus. 'We will not enter into any agreements that support secrecy.'

An estimated 75 attended the meeting, and about 20 spoke, many declining to give their names.

'Transparency at VCU is pathetic,' said one speaker who did not identify herself.

Another speaker, a faculty member in the pharmaceutical sciences, defended corporate research in general.

'I've never had a situation in which I felt my integrity was endangered,' he said.

Some wondered how a confidentiality agreement could be reached with a corporation without halting the publication of research information.

'That's a good question,' [Associate Dean of the School of Social Work Kia] Bentley said. The task force will address that, she said.

First, for what my opinions may be worth, I commend VCU for setting up this meeting, and setting up a task force to consider issues raised by the Philip Morris contracts. Second, I commend the Richmond Times-Dispatch and other media for covering it.

But I do wonder about how, at least according to the media reports, this meeting seemed to skirt some some of the issues involved. First, Vice President Macrina seemed not to be acknowledging just how comprehensive the secrecy provisions of the contract were. According to the original NY Times article,
The contract bars professors from publishing the results of their studies, or even talking about them, without Philip Morris’s permission. If 'a third party,' including news organizations, asks about the agreement, university officials have to decline to comment and tell the company.
Second, at least the Richmond Times-Dispatch coverage seemed to soft-pedal Philip Morris' control over publication of research results. Again, according to the NY Times,

Philip Morris alone decides whether the researchers can publish because the contract defines 'without limitation all work product or other material created by V.C.U.' as proprietary information belonging to the company.

Finally, it is not clear whether the issue of the VCU President's simultaneous responsibilities to the share-holders of a tobacco company was even mentioned.

Perhaps these are quibbles, given that this university was at least willing to have a public discussion of this problem. Many of the issues involving mismanagement by and conflicts of interest affecting leadership of academic medicine that we have mentioned on Health Care Renewal have never been discussed in anything like a town meeting at the relevant institutions.

So I hope that VCU is making some progress towards making its clinical and health related research transparent in all respects, its design, implementation, analysis, reporting, and who funds it and under what agreements. It would be nice if some other academic medical institutions also could show some progress.

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