A former R.J. Reynolds scientist has testified that company lawyers and executives disbanded a major research project on smoking and emphysema more than 25 years ago because they feared the findings could be turned against the industry in court.
In a deposition in a tobacco lawsuit in Texas, the former scientist, Joseph E. Bumgarner, told how he and 25 other members of Reynolds' biological research division in Winston-Salem, N.C., were abruptly ordered to surrender their notebooks to the company's legal department and then were fired.
The March 1970 episode has been referred to as the "mouse house massacre" after the lab building where researchers exposed mice, rats and rabbits to cigarette smoke.
Bumgarner testified last week in the suit filed against the tobacco companies by the state of Texas--one of 17 states suing the industry to recover tax funds spent to treat indigent victims of smoking-related illness. The Texas suit is scheduled for trial next September.
Plaintiffs' attorneys called the testimony further evidence that tobacco companies engaged in a widespread pattern of suppressing adverse scientific information--which is certain to be an issue in major tobacco trials scheduled for next year.
The tobacco companies have denied the allegation. On Wednesday, Reynolds attorney Theodore W. Grossman said that, contrary to Bumgarner's claims, the company had closed the lab because it no was longer needed, not because of research that could have hurt the company.
In the testimony, Bumgarner, now a scientist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said he joined Reynolds' research staff in 1967 and was assigned to a project "to determine if cigarette smoking was a cause of emphysema" and to "identify the offending components in cigarette smoke that created the effect."
The research, which Bumgarner described as "meaningful" and "of benefit to man," involved forcing test animals to inhale smoke through tubes inserted in their noses or throats.
Reading excerpts from internal documents presented to him by plaintiffs' lawyer Ronald Motley, Bumgarner said tissue from a test animal showed "a diffuse, marked emphysema throughout the lungs."
Bumgarner said the death of the project and mass firings came without warning, after research supervisors had praised the quality of the work.
Staff members were simply told that "we were being terminated because of [the] changing direction of the company," according to Bumgarner. But "I strongly suspect that we were fired because anything we were doing was subject to subpoena," he said.
But Grossman said the majority of the research done by the biological research division was for Reynolds' non-tobacco business and that the need for the lab diminished after Reynolds sold one subsidiary and did not go forward with a planned acquisition.
In addition, he said the emphysema work did not yield a major breakthrough and that similar studies were pursued by other researchers.
Tobacco foes contend the "mouse house" episode is but one example of tobacco companies suppressing research of vital interest to consumers and government agencies.
In one notable instance, Philip Morris in 1984 canceled the nicotine research of company scientists Victor DeNoble and Paul Mele--work that only became public in congressional hearings a decade later. Philip Morris said later that the information was not divulged because it was proprietary.