Taxpayer dollars were used to fund a study that painted the Tea Party movement as the spawn of the tobacco lobby -- a premise that Tea Party leaders say is absurd.
The study was published earlier this month in the Tobacco Control journal and was formally presented by its authors at an on-campus symposium in San Francisco Feb. 8.
"The Tea Party that we see in 2009 actually has decades of influence from tobacco and other corporate interests," co-author Amanda Fallin said at the time, downplaying the notion that the group is just a "spontaneous grassroots movement."
The charge that the Tea Party is a tool of broader corporate interests is one often leveled by Democratic critics. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi was fond of calling the movement "astroturf" in the run-up to the 2010 mid-term elections where Tea Partiers helped Republicans take control of the House.
The research at the University of California-San Francisco echoes the claim, while weaving in an attractive narrative for Tea Party critics -- that the Tea Party is continuing the agenda of the tobacco industry.
Tea Party leaders, though, roundly rejected the findings. They argued that the groups the study focused on do not compose the entirety of the movement, and that the tobacco issue is a relatively minor aspect of the present-day small-government agenda.
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And they complained that a study that arguably targeted administration critics was funded by taxpayers.
"It's an example of the frivolous spending inside the government ... that has landed us $17 trillion in debt," said Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin.
The study was funded by federal taxpayer grants through the National Institutes of Health and its subsidiary the National Cancer Institute, both federal agencies. It's difficult to tell how much grant money specifically went toward this study, but federal records show researchers at the university have received $7 million since 2007 to study tobacco issues.
'If you're going to have a conspiracy theory, at least try to make it pass the laugh test'
- AFP President Tim Phillips
The study argues that while conventional wisdom says the Tea Party launched in the spring of 2009, its "roots" lie in the tobacco industry efforts of the 1990s. The premise is that the group Citizens for a Sound Economy, a tobacco industry ally which opposed tobacco taxes and control in the '90s, split a decade later into the conservative groups Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, which have since linked up with part of the Tea Party movement. The study argues that their tactics and beliefs have remained constant by opposing new taxes and regulations.
"As of 2012, AFP and FreedomWorks were supporting the tobacco companies' political agenda by mobilising local Tea Party opposition to tobacco taxes and smoke-free laws," the study said. "This support for the tobacco companies' agenda continues the tobacco industry use of AFP and FreedomWorks' predecessor organisation, Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE), as a third-party ally since at least 1991. ... Many people in the smokers' rights effort or the tobacco companies went on to Tea Party organizations."
The study argues that both AFP and FreedomWorks were using "tea party rhetoric" before 2009.
It is true that AFP and FreedomWorks derived from Citizens for a Sound Economy, and that both those groups have in turn been heavily involved in supporting the Tea Party.
However, opposing tobacco taxes is a relatively small part of their current agenda. And those two groups do not compose the entirety of the Tea Party movement. They work with a range of local and national Tea Party groups, but those groups -- including the national Tea Party Patriots -- have their own management.
Martin acknowledged that AFP and FreedomWorks have helped her group and others, but said the movement did not start with them. She found it curious that the study left out Tea Party Patriots.
"If you're going to have a conspiracy theory, at least try to make it pass the laugh test ... and this one doesn't even do that," AFP President Tim Phillips told FoxNews.com. Further, he said opposing tobacco taxes is "probably point-00001 percent of the effort" today.
A statement from the National Cancer Institute to FoxNews.com said the "NCI played no role in the selection of the research topic, conduct of the research or preparation of the manuscript."
The research paper itself also included a line that said "the funding agency played no role" in the study itself.
Researcher Stanton Glantz, though, defended the federal funding.
"If you want to control cancer, you have to control smoking -- and if you want to control smoking, you have to understand how the tobacco companies operate," he said.
Glantz also told FoxNews.com that the Tea Party groups complaining about his research are "arguing with things we didn't say." He said the study didn't claim AFP and FreedomWorks are the lone members of the Tea Party or that tobacco is the movement's only issue. Plus he said the research team did not start out looking to write about the Tea Party, though their "important role emerged" during research into tobacco company advocacy.
Personally, though, he said he thinks the grassroots part of the Tea Party "pretty much originated with that smokers' rights stuff -- but we're not saying that it's the only thing that's going on."
Phillips argued the study still suggested the whole movement "is somehow the creation of one corporate entity." He said the birth of the movement can still be traced to CNBC's Rick Santelli lambasting the federal government on TV and opposition to the stimulus package converging "spontaneously" in early 2009.
As for the taxpayer funding, he acknowledged that NIH and NCI might not have known the subject matter.
But he asked: "Which is worse? That you simply give taxpayer dollars to people and say, 'hey study whatever you want ... or (say) 'Oh so you're going to go after people who oppose the president's agenda?' ... 'That's good.'"