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Black leaders protest $7.5 million donation to medical school

Tennessee

Carol Ozemhoya | OW Contributor | 6/20/2019, 10:19 a.m.
Earlier this month, Meharry Medical College, a 143-year-old historically Black institution in Tennessee, said..

Earlier this month, Meharry Medical College, a 143-year-old historically Black institution in Tennessee, said that is had received the second-largest grant in its history — $7.5 million to start a center to study public health issues that affect African-Americans, reports the New York Times.

But the gift has prompted a backlash from African-American health experts and activists because of the source of the funds: Juul Labs, the fast-growing e-cigarette company, now partially owned by the tobacco giant Altria. Black people in the United States have a higher death rate from tobacco-related illness than other racial and ethnic groups.

Research into the health effects of tobacco products, including newer nicotine delivery systems like Juul’s popular vaping devices, was to be the first order of study for the new center. The announcement set off several days of frantic phone calls and meetings among Black public health leaders, who remember the tobacco industry’s history of targeting Black communities with menthol cigarettes — and who don’t want Black youths becoming addicted to nicotine through vaping. “Juul doesn’t have African-Americans’ best interests in mind,” said LaTroya Hester, a spokeswoman for the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network, which is sending a letter of protest to Meharry. “The truth is that Juul is a tobacco product, not much unlike its demon predecessors.”

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 reportedly contributed to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and to the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a trade group for African-American community newspapers. But Meharry officials stressed that they approached Juul, not the other way around. The college’s president, Dr. James E.K. Hildreth Sr., has said he was confident that the new center’s work would be free of Juul’s influence. And, he said, research on nicotine and tobacco is of vital importance to the six million African-Americans who are smokers.

“We have historically found ourselves occupying the last seat at the table when research is conducted on emerging public health issues that profoundly affect minority communities,” Dr. Hildreth wrote in a letter to the Meharry community. “We have paid a heavy price for being shut out.”

Lindsay Andrews, a spokeswoman for Juul, said the company had no specific conditions for the grant, which will be paid over five years.

“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,” Andrews said.

Meharry, founded in Nashville in 1876, is the nation’s largest medical research center at a historically Black institution. Dr. Hildreth, a Rhodes scholar with a Ph.D. from Oxford and an M.D. from Johns Hopkins, became president of the university in 2015 and is determined to expand its research. To do so, he has been in discussion with technology companies, foundations and the federal government, in addition to Juul.