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Chasing the dollar: why scientists should decline tobacco industry funding
  1. R E Malone,
  2. L A Bero
  1. R E Malone, L A Bero, University of California, San Francisco, USA
  1. Correspondence to:
 Ruth E Malone, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, School of Nursing and Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, University of California, San Francisco, Box 1390, UCSF, San Francisco, CA 94143–1390; 
 rmalone{at}itsa.ucsf.edu

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Tobacco dollars are a bad bargain

Most tobacco researchers now know how the tobacco industry for decades operated clandestinely to obstruct and obfuscate the scientific evidence that smoking causes cancer and, later, that secondhand smoke causes disease in non-smokers. The tobacco industry’s internal documents, released as a result of the US states Attorneys General lawsuits and other legal cases, provide ample evidence that is analysed in an expanding body of work.1,2 What may not be as widely known is that these documents also highlight how the industry used respected scientists to advance its goals. Fields and Chapman’s important and well documented case study in this issue of the journal shows that even internationally renowned scientists are not immune to the seductions of industry funding.3

What is important for today’s scientists to understand is that credibility is perhaps the most desired scientific product for tobacco industry funded research. To illustrate, you need look no further than the internal form used by Philip Morris’ Worldwide Scientific Affairs to evaluate the need for scientific research, which explicitly includes “Credibility” as a primary criterion for judging proposed studies (along with Health/Safety, Regulatory, and Product Change). (see fig 1; also available at http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/bwi17d00). Credibility is essential to the positive public image the tobacco industry cultivates for the purposes of increasing product consumption, influencing public opinion, and soliciting opposition to effective public health policies.4

This is only one of the reasons that reputable scientists should view industry funding with scepticism, however. Among the other reasons, as Fields and Chapman show, is that almost no one, regardless of one’s pure motivations in conducting scientific research, is unaffected by the need to obtain dollars to do the work. Why was Wynder so anxious to be seen as “not anti-tobacco”? As this case study shows, it was because he wanted to ensure that he could get (and continue to get) money from the tobacco industry. Yes, the industry courted Wynder, but he was also active in chasing dollars, and the documents suggest that he may have thought he could steer a course of self management that would preclude conflicts of interest. Unfortunately, it appears he was unsuccessful.

Why didn’t Wynder openly acknowledge tobacco industry sponsorship? Was he discomfited by the tobacco industry’s pressure (for example, to delete any mention of smoking and health from the press materials for his American Health Foundation opening)? Was he aware that the industry was manipulating presentation of his findings, and understandably reluctant to admit it? The documents show that the industry thought his work might have more impact without such acknowledgement. The fact that he was apparently willing to agree to this arrangement suggests at least two possibilities: that he knew such acknowledgement would damage his own credibility as a scientist, or that he was covering for the industry.

Fields and Chapman point out that Wynder’s position on secondhand smoke was “consistent with his own data.” Yet, given the ties uncovered by this research, how do we know that the results of his work were not affected by industry influence on the questions to be asked, the study design, conduct of the research, and interpretation of the findings? There are multiple points at which the outcome of research can be influenced.5 The tobacco industry shifted from funding research on secondhand smoke to funding research on other indoor air contaminants when it found that the research on secondhand smoke did not support its positions.6 Even when research funded by the industry is of the same methodological rigour as non-industry funded research, the results tend to favour the industry and unfavourable results are suppressed.7–9 Although Wynder’s public position was consistent with his publications, we do not know what went on in all the steps leading up to the publications.

Key points

  • The tobacco industry uses ties with respected scientists and institutions to seek credibility.

  • The tobacco industry has repeatedly engaged in unethical scientific and publication practices.

  • A growing number of institutions are enacting policies declining research funding from the tobacco industry.

  • Given the industry’s well reported, repeated efforts to obstruct and obscure science unfavourable to tobacco use, scientists should decline such support.

These documents reveal an increasingly cozy relationship between Wynder and the industry, including allowing his name to be used as an author on industry prepared work. Ghost authorship, the hidden participation of scientists in the design, conduct, and reporting of research, raises questions about who is accountable for the research that is published.10 The cozy relationship, however, apparently evaporated rather quickly — along with funding—as soon as Wynder changed his public views on secondhand smoke and was no longer useful in helping lend credibility to industry positions.

Fields and Chapman’s paper serves as a telling example of why academic scientists should not collaborate with the tobacco industry for the development of reduced harm products or for other scientific purposes. The tobacco industry now claims it has turned over a new leaf and is ready to work with legitimate scientists to find the answers to pressing questions about tobacco and health—questions it previously spent decades obscuring with biased, lawyer directed research. The industry’s new face must be accepted only at face value; the industry’s documents suggest that this is part of a long term strategy aimed primarily at improving its public image.11

A growing number of respected research institutions (among them University of Washington, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Sydney) have established policies excluding tobacco industry research funding, recognising that the industry seeks to profit from the respect and credibility accorded to these institutions.12 Based on the increasing emergence of previously secret industry information about the industry’s unethical scientific and publication practices, some respected scientific publications are considering whether they will publish research funded by the tobacco industry. In addition, some groups of scientists are challenging industry scientist dominated publications that fail to disclose potential conflicts of interest.13

Policy implications

  • Scientific organisations and institutions should develop policies prohibiting tobacco industry funding of research. At minimum, to address potential conflicts of interest, full disclosure of funding sources at all stages of the research, including in publications and presentations, should be a requirement.

These institutional moves point to the need for scientists to consider how acceptance of tobacco industry research funding helps advance the credibility of the tobacco industry—an industry that continues to spend more than $1 million an hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, marketing a product that kills millions each year when used as intended. Taking tobacco money is a bad bargain for scientists, for their institutions, and for public health. Given the historical record, scintists should decline industry funding.

Figure 1

Philip Morris’ Worldwide Scientific Affairs Categorization Form. Figure recreated from original document for readability. Original at: http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/bwi17d00.

Tobacco dollars are a bad bargain

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