Black public health leaders are criticizing Meharry Medical College's decision to accept a $7.5 million grant from Juul Labs, Inc., as the popular e-cigarette manufacturer is partially owned by Altria — one of the world's largest producers of tobacco.
On June 7, Meharry announced on their website that the funds would go toward the new Center for the Study of Social Determinants of Health. The historically black institution would like to research the impact of e-cigarettes and other nicotine-delivery products, particularly in young people and minority communities.
“Smoking has had disproportionately negative effects on minority, and particularly African-American, populations for decades," Dr. James E.K. Hildreth, CEO of Meharry Medical College, said in a statement. "At Meharry, we have been on the front lines of treating those impacted by this scourge and see firsthand how smoking can destroy lives. Our goal is to help set a new course for education, prevention and policy surrounding the use of tobacco and e-cigarettes.”
But as The New York Times reports, Black Americans "have a higher death rate from tobacco-related illnesses than other racial and ethnic groups."
Public health leaders are also wary about the industry's history of targeting black communities with menthol cigarettes, as menthol might be more addictive. According to the American Lung Association, about 77% of Black American smokers prefer menthol cigarettes, compared to 23% of White smokers.
"Juul doesn’t have African-Americans’ best interests in mind,” LaTroya Hester, a spokeswoman for the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network, told the Times. “The truth is that Juul is a tobacco product, not much unlike its demon predecessors.”
In a guest column for The Tennessean last week Tuesday, Hildreth noted that the school will have full independence over how research is done.
"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," Hildreth said.