Should Meharry Medical College, a
Historically Black College (HBCU) established in 1876 in Nashville,
have accepted $7.5 million from Juul Labs, the controversial
e-cigarette company that provides an alternative to smoking tobacco?
Meharry says it will use the grant, the second-largest it has ever
received, to study public health issues and African Americans,
including the health effects of tobacco products. They will
establish a Center for the Study of Social Determinants of Health,
and, according to its President, Dr. James Hildreth, " begin
conducting fully-independent research into the health conditions and
issues related to tobacco and nicotine-delivery products."
say that Meharry has made a deal with the devil since African
American people smoke more and have a higher death rate from
tobacco-related illnesses than other racial and ethnic groups. They
think Meharry should have passed on the Juul donation because they
don't believe that the historically Black Meharry can take Juul's
money and continue to make a difference in Black lives.
say nonsense! Juul will not be dictating the topics or terms of
research with Meharry.
College's President, Dr. James K.K. Hildreth, Sr., who has been
determined to increase the amount of research that Meharry students
are doing, says the college approached Juul, not the other way
around, and they did it with their eyes wide open. He says he is
confident that the new research center Meharry will establish will be
independent of Juul. They won't have input to the research topics
that Meharry tackles, nor will they determine the course or direction
medical colleges, including Meharry, turn down contributions from
tobacco companies. As Meharry and Juul were exploring the
possibility of the donation, Altria, a tobacco company, acquired 35
percent of Juul. Should that have killed the deal? It caused
Meharry to pause. But eventually, they decided to accept the money
because they believe they can use it for the greater good. I agree.
Hildreth has been a biomedical researcher for more than 36 years. In
a letter to the Meharry community, he reminded them that, "The
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
can't read that part of Hildreth's letter without thinking of the
Tuskegee syphilis experiments, where the federal government funded
research on the effects of untreated syphilis on black men. Medicine
to cure syphilis was withheld from the men in the experiment. The
federal government did this! The commercial use of Black bodies
included the harvesting (and reproduction) of the cells of Henrietta
Lacks, a Black woman whose DNA is still being used today for medical
research. And, when we think of experiments on Black bodies, one
must think of the odious J. Marion Sims, who was called the "father
of modern gynecology." He earned his fame by conducting painful
experiments on enslaved women. Thank goodness New York City removed
his statue from Central Park!
doesn't aim to hurt the six million African Americans who are smokers
or to profit from them. They aim to have a seat at the research
table, a place from which Black researchers, and Black research
institutions, have often been excluded. Juul's contribution allows
Meharry to pull up a chair to the research table and participate in
the scientific inquiry about the health effects of cigarettes and
other tobacco products, critical investigation given the fact that
African Americans are more likely to die from tobacco-related
illnesses than others.
Hildreth's letter to the Meharry community outlines several research
questions. What is the long-term impact of e-cigarettes? Does vaping
cause developmental health issues? Are vaping devices effective as
smoking reduction or cessation devices? Will laws prohibiting tobacco
sales for those under 21 improve health outcomes? San Francisco
recently passed legislation outlawing the sale of vaping devices.
How effective are such laws? These are questions worth answering
where I sit, Meharry should have negotiated for a much more
substantial contribution from Juul, and perhaps they will. After
all, according to Dr. Hildreth, the tobacco industry "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."
Dr. Hildreth. If Meharry's research can help us learn more about
addiction, and if the research can be used for tobacco use
prevention, then Meharry is doing the right thing. I don't see
others lining up to fund Meharry's research, and fundraising for
HBCUs is extremely challenging.
look forward to the work that the Center for the Study of Social
Determinants of Health will produce.