If someone offers you $7.5 million, you’re likely going to take it — few questions asked. This is what Meharry Medical College did when they were gifted the second-largest grant in the institution’s history. But many in the community were outraged at the college’s acceptance of the donation. The reason? The financial contributor of the money was Juul Labs.
Juul Labs is an e-cigarette company headquartered in San Francisco, CA. If you have contact with anyone between the ages of 16 and 30, you’ve probably heard of Juul. It’s a popular alternative to traditional tobacco cigarettes.
The controversy around the grant money has two parts. The first is the historical impact of tobacco on African Americans. Meharry Medical College is a historically black college in Tennessee. When the college announced their grant to the school, many people expressed their concern at the ethical implications of accepting money from a company that has had such a negative impact on the school’s community.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), African Americans on average smoke fewer cigarettes than do other demographics, but “they are more likely to die from smoking-related disease than Whites.” According to the same report, tobacco companies target African Americans with advertising more than Whites, and have historically tried to insert themselves into African American lives by contributing to minority higher education institutions and scholarship programs. This history of influence has many concerned that the grant by Juul was just another ploy for influence by a tobacco company.
There are also the ethical implications related to what the grant was to be used for — the study of public health issues affecting African Americans. People questioned whether Juul would expect tampered study results or skewed research to make e-cigarettes appear less harmful. Juul is also partially owned by the tobacco company Altria, and many medical and health schools — including Meharry in the past — have turned down funding by tobacco companies to avoid this ethical grey area.
The college’s president Dr. James Hildreth was aware of this dilemma when he announced the contribution, and he addressed the issue in a June 7th letter to the school’s community. “I understand the involvement of JUUL may give pause, just as it first did me,” Hildreth wrote. “We have, however, spent countless hours airing our concerns with JUUL, and are now confident in moving forward because of the critical importance of the work we will do and the assurance we have that it will be entirely independent.”