For Jonathan Samet , a career in tobacco research was impossible to avoid.
Trained in pulmonary medicine and epidemiology, Samet regularly saw tobacco’s effects on patients’ health while working at the University of New Mexico Hospital in the mid-1970s. “You spend a lot of time taking care of people who have horrible diseases that are caused by tobacco and are almost completely avoidable,” says Samet. “You see the effects on people. Then you say, ‘What are we doing about this?’ ”
Samet’s answer was to steep himself in the epidemiology of tobacco-related diseases, do groundbreaking tobacco research, and unabashedly present that science to government and the public. He began contributing to Surgeon General’s reports in 1984. He is the senior scientific editor for the 2003 Surgeon General’s report on active smoking and the 2004 report on passive smoking.
After three years of preparation, Samet testified in the landmark 1998 Minnesota tobacco trial that smoking causes certain diseases like lung cancer. Biostatistics Chair Scott Zeger , PhD, presented calculations about the cost of treating tobacco-related diseases. The tobacco companies settled during closing arguments, ultimately paying U.S. states $246 billion and acquiescing to a host of demands (including the release of millions of internal documents).
Samet and Zeger are now working on the federal government’s $289 billion lawsuit that accuses tobacco companies of 50 years of deceptive marketing.
“He is the world’s leading scientific expert on the health effects of smoking. That’s not my opinion. That’s evidenced by the facts,” says Zeger. “He is highly regarded for his scientific expertise and integrity by both the anti-smoking people and the tobacco industry.”
In March, the Flight Attendant Medical Research Institute honored Samet with the Dr. William Cahan Distinguished Professor Award and $600,000 over 3 years to combat tobacco-related disease.
“I relish challenges,” Samet says, “and tobacco is a big one.”
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