For more than three decades, epidemiologist James Enstrom has labored quietly at UCLA, studying the effect of tobacco smoke on human health. In recent years, his work has challenged the conventional view that second-hand smoke poses a serious health risk.
He calls himself a lone wolf, a maverick and a rebel. His critics call him a turncoat.
Enstrom once worked closely with the American Cancer Society, but today his sponsor is the tobacco industry. Over the last 15 years, he has received $1.4 million plus undisclosed consulting fees from the industry while producing research that supports industry views. One study used the American Cancer Society's database to contend that second-hand smoke was not a serious health hazard.
Now Enstrom has become a symbol of industry influence for activists who support a proposal to bar University of California researchers from receiving tobacco industry money. The regents will take up the issue in May. Mirroring divisions elsewhere in UC, some university regents back a ban, while others oppose it on grounds of academic freedom. The 63-year-old Enstrom maintains that he is simply a scholar in "pursuit of truth."
"If I was so corrupt, how could I survive for 33 years at UCLA?" he asks. "The effort is to smear me and libel me."
Unfortunately for Enstrom, much of his correspondence with the tobacco industry became public during lawsuits filed by government agencies against the companies. Some of his letters are more revealing than he would have wished.
Seven months ago, his research and correspondence were cited by a federal judge in a racketeering case as evidence of the tobacco industry's manipulation of the scientific process. In January, the ethics of his research were called into question at a public meeting of the UC Board of Regents.
Enstrom, tall, forceful and passionate, believes the proposed ban at UC is aimed personally at him and says he is being vilified by a powerful lobby that places "political correctness" above science. He denies that tobacco money influenced his results, says no one has found errors in his calculations and contends that other studies corroborate his findings.
"It's unfortunate to end up in a racketeering lawsuit for writing an article in a British medical journal," he said ruefully.
University officials have kept their distance from Enstrom but note that he has faced tremendous pressure from his critics.
"In some sense I will stand up for Dr. Enstrom," said Roberto Peccei, UCLA vice chancellor for research. "He's got all these people beating on him. I'm not here to defend him, but I do think he was hit by a Mack truck."
Enstrom went into the field of health research by chance.
A native of Alhambra, he earned a doctorate in physics at Stanford University. He was doing postdoctoral work at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory when he happened on a map showing cancer rates in the U.S.
He was intrigued to see that Utah had the lowest incidence of all 50 states. Theorizing that Utah fared better because Mormons don't smoke or drink, he began collecting cancer data in his spare time.
In 1973, he abandoned physics and got a postdoctoral fellowship in epidemiology at UCLA. In 1975, he produced a well-received study funded by the American Cancer Society concluding that Mormons in California had lower cancer rates than other Californians.
He has remained at UCLA since, not on faculty but as a researcher in the School of Public Health. He receives no salary and has no university staff but supports himself through grants and contracts, using the money to hire part-time assistants.
During the first half of his career in epidemiology, he received funding from the cancer society and collaborated with two of its top scientists. In the late 1980s, the society gave him permission to use data from a survey of 1 million Americans conducted between 1959 and 1972.
But by 1992, the society deemed his work marginal and refused to fund more research. A grant from the state's anti-smoking fund was short-lived. Enstrom said he reluctantly turned to the tobacco industry.
"If you want to do research, you have to get money from somewhere," says Enstrom, a lifelong nonsmoker from a family of nonsmokers. "In an ideal world, I would not have taken it."
According to documents filed by prosecutors in the racketeering case, Enstrom received $94,500 from the industry between 1992 and 1997, becoming "a key tobacco industry researcher and consultant."
From 1993 to 1996, he also worked as a consultant for the North Carolina law firm of Womble Carlyle, analyzing other scientists' studies for Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds. He declines to say how much he was paid.
Despite his industry funding, Enstrom kept the cancer society data. In 1996, he sought industry funds to use the data to study the effect of second-hand smoke by analyzing the cause of death of survey participants who never smoked but were married to smokers.