Meharry Medical College accepted JUUL’s $7.5M grant with eyes wide open | Opinion

From The Tennessean • Published June 11, 2019
James E.K. Hildreth Sr., Guest Columnist
Dr. James E.K. HildrethThe bodies of black Americans have historically been the subject of scientific experimentation with no control on our part. If it takes an unorthodox partnership to change that dynamic, then let the research begin.
Meharry Medical College, one of the nation’s oldest historically black medical schools, has accepted a $7.5 million grant from e-cigarette maker JUUL Labs. With these funds, we will open a Center for the Study of Social Determinants of Health, and begin conducting fully-independent research into the health conditions and issues related to tobacco and nicotine-delivery products.
We know exactly who we are. We know exactly who we are dealing with. We know exactly what we are getting into. And we know exactly who we aim to serve: the six million African Americans who are smokers, even as we expect to impact a much larger swath of the population.
Meharry is well aware that many researchers have turned down funding from JUUL Labs. We are an independent academic health sciences center that has served the underserved for more than 140 years. We understand these scientists’ concerns. But we have chosen to balance our concerns against the devastating consequences that have been visited upon us over many years by greedy corporations that have never sought our input, opinion, or expertise, and have never cared about the consequences of tobacco sales to our communities.
As a biomedical researcher for 36 years, I understand the power of scientific investigation, as well as the value of being on the forefront of public health issues rather than an afterthought. As a black American, I know the devastation that rains down on a community when human beings are treated as nothing more than experiments. As the president of Meharry, I am determined that, this time, we will be engaged on the forefront as our nation grapples with the emerging e-cigarette industry and its implications, including its allure for youth.
In too many black families, smoking is an inherited practice, passed down from generation to generation. Infants go to sleep in their cribs and awake in the morning inhaling second-hand smoke. Our patients know they should stop. They know smoking impacts every aspect of their health and the health of their families. They beg us for help. But the pull of demon tobacco often is too strong. In fact, the diseases that kill or cripple the lives of our patients at far higher rates than other populations – hypertension, diabetes, cardio-vascular and lung disease, and cancer – all are exacerbated by smoking.
This scourge on black America is not of black America’s making. Consider: the tobacco industry has intentionally and maliciously marketed cigarettes to minority communities over the past century. It has sponsored our cultural events and our elected officials. It has offered attractive price cuts and promotions. It has lured people in – especially our young people – with menthol cigarettes, which are considered even more addictive and damaging to health. It has taken our money and delivered sickness and death in return.
We at Meharry intend to advance the fight for better health and longer life by turning that insidious relationship on its head. We are taking matters into our own hands with eyes wide open. We welcome the opportunity to use significant grant monies from JUUL to go where the science takes us and to publish those results no matter what we find.
The long-term impact of e-cigarettes is not known and requires more research. Do they cause developmental health issues? Are they effective as smoking cessation devices? Will laws increasing the age of tobacco use from 18 to 21 improve health outcomes? The purpose of the JUUL grant, and the initial investigative track of our new Center for the Study of Social Determinants of Health, is to help answer these questions.
We have taken great pains to structure our relationship to guarantee complete autonomy in every aspect of the work. Meharry alone will choose the research subjects, set the direction and parameters, seek peer review, and publish the findings. In addition, under the JUUL grant, we will develop public outreach programs in the area where the company has been most criticized – the use of its products among young people. Meharry will convene national forums and launch public outreach campaigns to decrease use of e-cigarettes among youth. We embrace the chance to break the cycle of addiction to tobacco and nicotine among our young people. The ramifications of our efforts on the sale of e-cigarettes do not matter to us.
What does matter – in fact, what matters most to Meharry because of our role in the health of black Americans – is research integrity, autonomy and authority. JUUL knows this. Our faculty and students know this. Our patients know this. We are, and always have been, champions for the health and welfare of people whose advocates have been few and far between. No matter where our research takes us or who our supporters are, this will never change.