The nation’s largest cigarette maker has paid for scientific research at four Massachusetts universities since 2000, a practice that critics of the tobacco industry liken to the Mafia underwriting crime fighting.

Philip Morris USA, which makes Marlboro and other top-selling cigarette lines, gave grants to scientists at Boston University, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Massachusetts, company spokesman David M. Sylvia said Friday.

The research supported by the company touched on conditions such as heart disease and cancer that are linked to smoking. The grants given by the Philip Morris External Research Program were not used to develop new tobacco products or refine existing brands, but they may have helped the company rehabilitate its public image.

When accepting Philip Morris money, the researchers had to promise to disclose the source of their funding in scientific publications, Sylvia said, and the company, in turn, promised not to meddle in the research.

Still, industry foes said research paid for by tobacco companies is irredeemably compromised.

“Taking money from the tobacco industry to conduct scientific research is like the DA taking money from the Mafia to conduct investigations of crime,” said Gregory Connolly, a Harvard School of Public Health professor and former director of the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program.

University scientists first came under withering attack for taking money from Big Tobacco in the 1990s, when their work was seen as buttressing industry claims that cigarettes were not harmful. The tenor of industry-funded research changed after the companies acknowledged in a landmark settlement in 1998 that their products were lethal.

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