Big Tobacco and the human genome: driving the scientific bandwagon?
© ESRC Genomics Network 2009
Published: 15 April 2009
The tobacco industry first began to promote the idea that a minority of smokers are 'genetically predisposed' to lung cancer in the 1950s. We used tobacco industry documents available as a result of litigation to investigate the role of the tobacco industry in funding the 'scientific bandwagon' described by Fujimura, in which genetics has come to dominate the cancer research agenda. From 1990-1995 inclusive, 52% of the project funding allocated by British American Tobacco's Scientific Research Group went to genetic research, mainly based in universities and at one cancer charity. The largest project involved a pharmacogenetic research unit, based in a UK medical school, which was established with the help of tobacco industry PR consultants in 1988. The unit received half its project funding from the industry in 1992. Its main aim was to identify a minority of smokers who are supposedly 'genetically susceptible' to lung cancer, so that smoking cessation measures could be targeted at them. This aim was adopted and promoted by influential scientists at the US National Institutes of Health and the UK Medical Research Council in the late 1980s, in the run up to the Human Genome Project.
BAT's research funds were also used to counter claims by others to have identified a unique 'genetic fingerprint' for tobacco smoke in lung cancer cells. We conclude that the tobacco industry has played a significant role in shaping research agendas, in particular, by promoting the idea that individual genome screening would be of benefit to public health.