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The Physicians Committee

The March of Dimes and Nicotine Experiments

“The creation of [the tobacco industry research institutes] and the work performed was nothing but a hoax created for public relations purposes….”

—U.S. District Court Judge J. Lee Sarokin


SCANDAL: March of Dimes Bankrolling Absurd Nicotine Experiments

A March of Dimes-funded animal experimenter made headlines recently, proclaiming that his studies reveal that nicotine has important “benefits.” Ed Levin, an experimenter at Duke University, used March of Dimes funds to insert nicotine “pumps” into pregnant rats and study the effects on their offspring.

Whether the March of Dimes knew it or not, Levin’s bigger sponsor was the tobacco industry, which has given him over one million dollars in grants. And while he found that nicotine can harm a developing fetus, an account in the Washington Post on November 9, 1998, barely breathed a word about nicotine’s risks. Instead, the article entitled “A Cigarette Chemical Packed with Helpful Effects?” stated that nicotine “is relatively benign to humans in normal doses” and that “nicotine has a wide array of potentially beneficial effects.” On the same day, the Orange County Register ran an article, also featuring Levin’s research, headlined “Nicotine—Yes, Nicotine—May Be Good for You.” Both articles highlighted purported memory-enhancing effects of the addictive drug hyped by Levin at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Los Angeles.

Long before the March of Dimes gave Levin a nickel, several human studies left no doubt about the dangers of smoking during pregnancy. Among the most telling was the National Child Development Study of 17,000 children, which showed that smoking ten cigarettes per day during pregnancy was associated with a 1.0 centimeter height reduction in children and three to five months retardation on reading, mathematics, and general ability.

Levin’s Lucky Strike with the March of Dimes

In 1994, American Medical Association executive vice president James Todd wrote a scathing attack on tobacco “research.” Research foundations funded by tobacco companies, he wrote, “are used by the tobacco industry as part of its overall public relations strategy, with two main goals in mind. First, tobacco research funds help the industry convince policy makers and the public that they have legitimate research projects under way that continue to search for links between smoking and ill health—and that the jury is still out on the ‘controversy.’ Second, the industry uses the funds to silence universities and researchers, and to link prestigious institutions with the industry, thus buying respectability.”

Referring to the Council for Tobacco Research on April 21, 1988, U.S. District Court Judge Lee E. Sarokin wrote, “The creation of this entity and the work performed was nothing but a hoax created for public relations purposes….”

The research itself, Todd wrote, generally sidesteps the real health problems of tobacco and how to combat them. At the time of Dr. Todd’s findings, Levin had taken $252,000 from the Council for Tobacco Research and $120,000 from R.J. Reynolds tobacco company, the maker of Camel, Winston, Salem, Doral, Vantage, Now, More, and other cigarette brands. He eventually received grants of at least $1,089,797 from these and other tobacco interests. Meanwhile, for reasons not yet clear, the March of Dimes gave Levin a $49,954 grant and an award for his “achievements.” Duke University reports an additional pending March of Dimes grant of $82,859 for 1997 to 1999.

What the Animals Go Through

Levin is not a medical doctor. He is a toxicologist who has conducted numerous experiments in which he exposes rats to nicotine, cocaine, or other substances and then tests them or their offspring in mazes.

Some of Levin’s tests are surprisingly harsh to the animals. In order to “motivate” hungry animals to search for food in mazes, Levin routinely withholds nourishment until they have lost 15 to 20 percent of body weight. A similar weight loss in a 150-pound man would reduce his weight to 120 to 128 pounds. These animals undergo a variety of other stressors, and all are killed.

In other experiments not funded by the March of Dimes, Levin and colleagues tested rats’ response to “stress.” This meant, among other things, placing them on a hot plate heated to 126 degrees Fahrenheit after surgically damaging portions of their brains.

In one test, called the “Morris water maze,” a rat is placed in a round tank about five feet in diameter holding water more than a foot deep, i.e., well over his head. The struggling animal’s task is to find a clear Plexiglas “escape platform” three-quarters of an inch below the surface on which he can stand to keep his head above water. In related experiments not funded by the March of Dimes, Levin and colleagues forced the animals to swim in a paint/water mixture so they could not see what was below them. Levin’s animals are subjected to a variety of surgical procedures, ranging from implantation of nicotine-releasing pumps to operations destroying parts of their brains.

Rat Maze Tests Don’t Apply to School Children

In reports funded by the tobacco industry, Levin and colleagues often describe the “benefits” of nicotine found in their studies and those of others, and Levin describes his own experiments as helping track down why nicotine has these “advantages.”

In a 1996 report, Levin wrote that he hoped his experiments might lead to “the possible development of nicotinic treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, as well as cognitive disorders such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and schizophrenia….” Levin and his co-workers praised nicotine in many other reports.

A rat splashing around in water over his head or running a maze at 20 percent below normal body weight is hardly likely to replicate the experience of children learning mathematics or reading. Indeed, memory test results from one strain of rats differ from those of another strain. Results in male rats differ from those in females, and young rats’ test results differ from those for older rats. Nicotine’s effects in primates also differ from those in sheep. Researchers have looked skeptically at results from animal experiments using nicotine because, according to a 1998 article in Canadian Family Physician, “there are difficulties extrapolating the findings to humans due to species variation and differences in exposure levels.”

Better Programs

The March of Dimes is likely to do more harm than good by spending money on rat experiments, particularly when sponsored experimenters end up promoting the potential “benefits” of nicotine. A $50,000 grant could have purchased hundreds of antismoking advertisements. The same grant could have provided a year’s worth of drug counseling and psychiatric care for ten homeless women’s shelters. The key now is not in further teasing apart nicotine’s harms or “benefits,” but in getting nicotine out of our lives.

This is not the March of Dimes’ first ugly incident with animal experimenters. Previously the charity funded experimenters who sewed closed the eyes of kittens and left them in this condition for a year and then killed them, followed by a similar experiment on an adult cat. Many other charities, such as Easter Seals and the Association of Birth Defect Children, fund no animal experiments at all.

To the March of Dimes and other health-related charities:

Efforts to promote nicotine as a beneficial drug can easily distract attention from the deadly toll tobacco continues to take. While pharmaceutical companies will no doubt continue their research into nicotine’s nervous system effects, the March of Dimes, the Council for Tobacco Research, federal agencies, and others should disengage from such studies, and instead focus their resources on aggressive programs to prevent smoking from starting and to help smokers quit.

Patrick Reynolds, President
The Foundation for a Smoke-Free America

Patch Adams, M.D., Gesundheit! Institute

San Francisco Tobacco Free Coalition

Neal D. Barnard, M.D., President
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine


Spring 1999

Spring 1999
Volume VIII
Number 2

Good Medicine

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