Black activists and health experts are slamming what they say is Meharry Medical College’s deal with the devil: in this case, the electronic cigarette company Juul, calling the HBCU’s recent decision to accept a $7.5 million grant from the e-cigarette firm deeply troubling.
“Juul doesn’t have African Americans’ best interests in mind,” LaTroya Hester, of the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network, told the New York Times. “The truth is that Juul is a tobacco product, not much unlike its demon predecessors.”
Meharry announced a little over a week ago that it had accepted the grant from Juul, which is partially owned by tobacco giant Altria. The medical school said it planned to use the grant, the second-largest in its 143-year history, to start a center to research health outcomes in the black community, including the health impact of tobacco products like Juul’s, News Channel 5 Nashville reports.
But, as the New York Times explains, the gift is raising red flags among the black medical community and anti-tobacco activists due to the heavy toll tobacco use has taken on African Americans, who “have a higher death rate from tobacco-related illnesses than other racial and ethnic groups.”
Activists also question how independent Meharry’s studies can be on the effects of vaping and e-cigarettes when they’re funded by a company that makes its money off such products.
In an op-ed in the Tennessean, James Hildreth, Meharry’s president and CEO, said the college knew what it was getting into when it accepted Juul’s money, and he assured readers that Meharry would be 100 percent independent of Juul in deciding what to study and regarding any findings.
Citing the long history of the tobacco industry and others in exploiting the black community and bringing death and disease to its people, Hildreth in his op-ed said it was important that a black institution like Meharry be at the table in discussions involving health outcomes and policies regarding same:
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.
Critics of Meharry’s decision say the school is being naive if it thinks its research won’t be impacted by taking Juul’s money.
“That’s a fantasy,” Sharon Eubanks told the Times. Eubanks is a lawyer who led the federal lawsuit against Big Tobacco that resulted in the industry being found to have conspired in hiding smoking’s health risks:
Ms. Eubanks, who is an advisory board member of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco, is particularly troubled by the industry’s record of promoting menthol cigarettes in black neighborhoods. These brands are especially addictive because the menthol flavor masks the cigarette’s harshness.
Altria’s best-selling Marlboro cigarette brand comes in menthol and regular tobacco flavors, as do Benson & Hedges and other cigarettes. Juul has refused to stop selling menthol flavor pods in stores, though it has agreed to discontinue selling most of its other flavors, except online.
“Juul is cozying up to the black community, and that makes it harder for some parts of the black community to call them out on their targeting of African Americans,” Eubanks told the Times.
Eubanks may have reason for concern as, according to the Times, Juul has been hiring numerous black influencers to be consultants or lobbyists:
Over the past year, Juul has hired numerous leaders with close ties to the black community as consultants and lobbyists. Among them are Benjamin Jealous, the former head of the NAACP; Heather Foster, a former adviser to President Obama who served as his liaison to civil rights leadership; and Chaka Burgess, co-managing partner of the Empire Consulting Group, who serves on the governing boards of the NAACP Foundation and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and its political action committee.
Juul has contributed to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and to the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a trade group for African-American community newspapers.
For its part, Juul tells the Times there were no strings attached to the Meharry grant:
“There are many questions about the overall public health impact of vapor products, and Juul products in particular, that a robust body of public health research must help answer,” Juul spokeswoman Lindsay Andrews said.