NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Meharry Medical College is set to receive a $7.5 million grant from a company associated with the tobacco industry.
The college will use the money to launch a new center and to research the health impact of tobacco and nicotine delivery products.
Meharry insists the research will be independent even though the money is coming from JUUL Labs which makes electronic cigarettes and vaping devices.
Meharry's President and CEO James Hildreth said he was initially opposed to accepting the $7.5 million grant.
"This decision was made after a lot of soul searching," Dr. Hildreth said.
"I like others gave some serious pause about whether this was the right thing to do."
Hildreth said he is now satisfied the research will be entirely independent.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Why would a company give a grant if what you are finding is bad for what the company is selling?"
Dr. Hildreth responded, "That's the risk that JUUL is willing to take."
Chris Bostic who is Deputy Policy Director for Action on Smoking and Health questioned how the research can really be independent.
"It raises suspicions right away. The tobacco industry has a long history of this, of funding research and cherry picking the results of that research," Bostic said.
"I hope this does not become a trend because we've spent a lot of time and effort to get universities to stay away from the tobacco industry," Bostic said.
In December the makers of Marlboro and Phillip Morris became part owners of JUUL Labs.
Dr. Hildreth said in a letter to fellow Meharrians the tobacco industry has "targeted unscrupulously" minorities in the past.
He said the grant allows Meharry to take the lead researching this new area of public health.
"Whatever we find, the world is going to know it, whether that's vaping is the worst thing ever or that vaping is really effective in causing people to stop smoking," Dr. Hildreth said.
JUUL Labs claims its goal is to help smokers stop smoking.
But the Tennessee Department of Health warns vaping and e-cigarettes are dangerous and used by growing numbers of young people.
"There is nicotine involved, and there are other harmful chemicals that are involved and we at the Department want people to be aware of that," said Charlotte Woods with the Tennessee Department of Health.
Dr. Hildreth believes its the right thing for Meharry to be doing.
"We will for the first time be driving a conversation, not the subject of it or at the trailing end of whatever policy is made," Dr. Hildreth said.
But others worry the college is being used by a corporation with an agenda.
"I'm all about e-cigarette research, just it should not be funded by JUUL," said Bostic.
This is a five year grant.
Meharry anticipates research will begin in the fall and is currently looking for a scientist oversee programs at the center which is called the Meharry Center for the Study of Social Determinants of Health.