Smoking, and ire, at UCLA
A study of nicotine addiction is funded by a tobacco company.
Richard C. Paddock, L.A. Times Staff Writer
Here’s a recipe for academic controversy:
First, find dozens of hard-core teenage smokers as young as 14 and study their brains with high-tech scans. Second, feed vervet monkeys liquid nicotine and then kill at least six of them to examine their brains. Third, accept $6 million from tobacco giant Philip Morris to pay for it all. Fourth, cloak the project in unusual secrecy.
At UCLA, a team of researchers is following this formula to produce what it hopes will be a groundbreaking study of addiction. So far, the scientists have proved that the issues of animal testing and tobacco-funded research are among the most contentious on university campuses.
UCLA professor Edythe London, the lead scientist on the three-year study, said it could discover new ways to help people quit smoking and lead to innovative treatments for other addictions.
“We are doing this because we really want to save lives,” she said. “I am really proud of what we are doing. We have a track record for contributing to science, and we would like to bring that to bear on the problem of nicotine addiction.”
But even before she had a chance to select her first teenager for study, London paid a price for her research. In October, activists opposed to animal testing flooded her Westside home with her garden hose, causing more than $20,000 in damage. They struck again this week, leaving an incendiary device at night that charred her front door. A gardener discovered the damage Tuesday.
The activists, who have also targeted other UCLA researchers, accused London of using “sadistic procedures” and “torturing nonhuman animals to death” in earlier studies. No one has been arrested in the attacks.
At the same time, Philip Morris’ role in the study has drawn sharp criticism from anti-tobacco activists. They doubt that the company wants to help people stop smoking and question whether the study of teenage and monkey brains could help Philip Morris design a more addictive cigarette.
“It’s stunning in this day and age that a university would do secret research for the tobacco industry on the brains of children,” said Matt Meyers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington, D.C. “It raises fundamental questions about the integrity, honesty and openness of research anywhere at the University of California.”
London said that Philip Morris would not have any oversight or other involvement in the study. The suggestion that the company might use her findings to make cigarettes more addictive is “twisted,” she said.