Meharry Medical College (Courtesy photo)
Meharry Medical College (Courtesy photo)

Meharry Medical College, a 143-year-old historically Black institution in Tennessee, announced that it received its second-largest grant ever from e-cigarette company Juul Labs.

The $7.5 million grant received much backlash from African American health experts and activists due to Black people in the United States having a higher death rate from tobacco-related illnesses like cancer or stroke, than any other ethnic and racial groups.

The money will be used to start a center to study public health issues that affect African Americans. Research into the health effects of tobacco products was the first order of study for the new center, including studies about newer nicotine delivery systems such as vaping devices.

The announcement caused concern among Black public health leaders, who remember tobacco industries targeting Black communities with menthol cigarettes, a process that seems to be mimicked now through the amount of support Juul has provided the community.

Juul, which is now partially owned by tobacco industry giants Altria, hired numerous leaders with close ties to the Black community as consultants and lobbyists over the past year, including Benjamin Jealous, former head of the NAACP.

Juul contributed to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and to the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), a trade group for African-American community newspapers. In an interview with the New York Times, LaTroya Hester, spokeswoman for the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network (NAATPN), said, “Juul doesn’t have African Americans’ best interest in mind. The truth is that Juul is a tobacco product, not much unlike its demon predecessors.”

However, Meharry officials have stressed that they were the ones to approach Juul and the college’s president, James E.K. Hildreth Sr., has stated to the Times that he was confident that the new center’s work would be free of Juul’s influence. The college has not received any explicit instructions or conditions for the grant, or any research conducted with the money from Juul.

“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,” Hildreth wrote in a letter to the Meharry community. “We have paid a price for being shut out.”

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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