Meharry Medical College is launching a new center to study the health effects of smoking and vaping, especially on minority communities. And the money is coming directly from the nation's largest e-cigarette company.
Juul Labs is giving the historically black medical school $7.5 million. This is the first time JUUL has partnered with an academic medical institution to fund research.
"E-cigarettes and vaping is an understudied industry right now, and all of the manufacturers need some sort of longitudinal studies to be able to pull from, and they can't be directed by them," says Meharry Senior Vice President Patrick Johnson. "And a lot of people have not been lining up to do independent research."
Johnson says it required a "leap of faith" and nearly a year of negotiations to work out a deal. The agreement has been structured to give researchers full autonomy.
"We have the complete freedom to publish whatever comes out," he says. "This isn't one of those where we have to clear it with the grantor."
Meharry plans to use the money to launch a center focused on social determinants of health. But that center will start with research on smoking and vaping, such as comparing the health risks of both, including secondhand. A director has not yet been hired.
The National Institutes of Health has said there could be some benefit for smokers who switch to vaping, but the topic is understudied. The Surgeon General has warned of a vaping epidemic among young people that endangers the development of the teenage brain.
"Understanding the impact of our products on public health is critical to fulfilling our mission," Juul Labs CEO Kevin Burns said in a written statement. "We exist to eliminate cigarettes and improve the lives of the world’s 1 billion smokers. In order to achieve that mission, we must learn more about the public health impact of e-cigarettes."