Smoking out Tobacco Industry-Supported Research

BMJ Open, along with a couple of other journals, published a statement a couple of days ago saying that they’d no longer accept papers based on research wholly or partially funded by the tobacco industry.  The gloss on the statement is damning:

The tobacco industry, far from advancing knowledge, has used research to deliberately produce ignorance and to advance its ultimate goal of selling its deadly products while shoring up its damaged legitimacy.  We now know, from extensive research drawing on the tobacco industry’s own internal documents, that for decades the industry sought to create both scientific and popular ignorance or “doubt.”  At first this doubt related to the fact that smoking caused lung cancer; later, it related to the harmful effects of secondhand smoke on non-smokers and the true effects of using so called light or reduced tar cigarettes on smokers’ health.  Journals unwittingly played a role in producing and sustaining this ignorance.

Some who work within public health and who buy the notion of “harm reduction” argue that the companies that now produce modified cigarette products and non-cigarette tobacco products, including electronic nicotine delivery devices (e-cigarettes), are different from the tobacco industry of old, or that the tobacco industry has changed. For “hardened” cigarette smokers who can’t or won’t quit cigarettes, the argument goes, new tobacco products could represent potential public health gains, and company sponsored research may be the first to identify those gains.

But one fact remains unassailably true: the same few multinational tobacco companies continue to dominate the market globally and, as smaller companies develop promising products, they are quickly acquired by the larger ones. However promising any other products might be, tobacco companies are still in the business of marketing cigarettes. As US federal court judge Gladys Kessler pointed out in her judgment in the case of US Department of Justice versus Philip Morris et al, the egregious behaviour of these companies is continuing and is likely to continue into the future.  And just this summer documents leaked from one company showed a concerted campaign to “ensure that PP [plain packaging of tobacco products, bearing health warnings but only minimal branding] is not adopted in the UK.”  The tobacco industry has not changed in any fundamental way, and the cigarette—the single most deadly consumer product ever made—remains widely available and aggressively marketed.

What should we make of the policy?

A bad argument against the ban – yeah, I know that that misses some linguistic subtlety, but it’s close enough – is that it’s a violation of free speech: it really is no such thing, for the simple reason that noone is trying to stop the tobacco industry making its case – a right to free speech doesn’t imply a right to a platform.  Of course, if every reputable publisher denies the industry a platform, than this might be a de facto rather than de jure curb on free speech – but that’s just the way it goes: just as noone gets to insist that a particular person gives them a platform, they don’t get to insist that they be provided with one at all.  (Also – though it doesn’t apply in this case – merely to splutter “B…b.. but free speech!” isn’t an argument anyway.)

Still, I guess I am uneasy about a ban.  There’s a range of reasons for this.  One of these has to do with a kind of fallacy about repeat offenders.  Let’s allow that the tobacco industry has a record of unreliable research – that’s not all that much of an allowance.  More: let’s allow that the industry has been systematically dishonest about what it does, and its funding habits have been an extension of that dishonesty.  Yet we wouldn’t be entitled to say based on that that every instance of research was unreliable: one swallow doesn’t make a spring, but the fact that it’s spring doesn’t mean that everything’s a swallow.  And, besides: the fact that research has been unreliable in the past isn’t an indication that future research will be; one would prefer to think, surely, that a given piece of research should be taken on its own merits, rather than on the merits of the person who did it, or the merits of the last piece of research.

So there’s at least a chance that there might be decent research carried out on tobacco industry’s dollar – and the slim possibility that there might be some hitherto unrecognised benefit that’s derived from tobacco.  There’s even a chance (vanishingly small, I admit, but not nothing) that we’ve got tobacco wrong all along.  Science sometimes works like that.  More worryingly, if we’re concerned that tobacco-funded research has an agenda, shouldn’t we also entertain at least the vague possibility that research funded by, say, a cancer charity also has an agenda?  And if we can adjust for the latter, why not the former?  Along these lines, one might say that journals have a duty to be disinterested, and that the policy violates that duty.

I think that these worries are non-negligible; but they don’t necessarily tip the balance for all that.  This is partly, but not wholly, because I don’t think that there is a duty to research anyway – and so to forego the opportunity to publish research isn’t anything more than just that: foregoing an opportunity.  So even if there is good research that won’t get published… well, meh.

And while it might be the case that we’ve got tobacco all wrong, or even that it has some minor mitigation, as it stands, the overwhelming balance of probabilities is that we haven’t.  And note that the policy is not that no papers will be published that question conventional wisdom about tobacco – those would normally have to pass a fairly high bar anyway (for reasons related to Hume’s reasoning concerning miracles: there’re certain things that we’re entitled to discount, even if not ignore, just because believing them would require such a grand suspension of disbelief), and it hasn’t been raised; it’s just that tobacco-industry sponsored stuff is ruled out.  That actually makes unexpected results more trustworthy on aggregate, because it’s more likely to be disinterested.  Industry-supported research is more likely to be favourable to the industry that supports it, not least because a sponsor might have the ability to sit on research that isn’t favourable.

The biggest worry has to do with the possibility of drowning out an unpopular bias with a popular one.  But it has to be said here that cancer charities do not have a track record of distorting research; even if there is the occasional dodgy paper – one ought never to say never – there’s no evidence of anything like the practices of big tobacco.  Of course, this takes us back to the point about the past not providing evidence of this particular piece of research.  But still – there’s room to be at least slightly wary of tobacco-sponsored research in a way that doesn’t apply to the other stuff.  Cancer charities don’t have a profit incentive, and not-smoking isn’t an addictive revenue-source, for one thing.  So even if you think that the BMJ statement is a bit too righteously angry, the general point stands.

Hence that particular line of attack on the ban, I think, fails.

What we do have reason to believe is that tobacco is harmful; and those with a fairly obvious interest in selling the stuff also have a corresponding interest in pushing research that talks down those risks.  Hence there’s a conflict of interest.  And since there’s no obligation to publish to begin with… well, it’s probably no great loss, all told.

Should we be wholly at ease with the policy?  Probably not.  But the idea that we should always be at ease with moral decisions is fallacious.  I think that the policy is, at the very least, defensible, and could well be right.

  • While I appreciate the point you raise about how we should feel uneasy about the ban, I’m honestly completely surprised that it’s taken the BMJ this long to adopt a policy that many institutions and publications have had for decades. It’s not quite right to compare the money from a cancer charity to the money from a company – yes they have an agenda too, but a cancer charity will very likely publcally publish financial data and be transparent about research outcomes achieved, whereas tobacco companies only cough up company information if a federal court forces them to. That’s so far from being a party we can trust to fund research in a disinterested manner.

  • V Hale

    ”Cancer charities don’t have a profit incentive, and not-smoking isn’t an addictive revenue-source, for one thing. So even if you think that the BMJ statement is a bit too righteously angry, the general point stands.” ーThey get much of their funding from pharmaceutical companies who do have incentives for smoking/second hand smoke etc to be shown to be as detrimental as possible so more people will buy Chantix and nicotine patches/gum etc (and hence pharmaceutical companies urged the EU to ban electronic cigarettes)

  • ScottEwing

    By all means. Only publish ‘research’ funded by Big-Pharma. Got to keep on selling the snake oil. No intelligent person believes this secondhand smoke nonsense anymore.

    • None of this is to deny that there’s quite possibly a similar problem with a lot of research. I’m tempted to think that there is a difference, though, inasmuch as that pharmaceutical companies to at least sometimes generate things that are useful and desirable. It might well be desirable to reform pharma-sponsored research, too.

      As for the second-hand smoke stuff… well, that’s got nowt to do with this particular point, and I’m not sure that worries about it really have been discredited. A slight case of the no-true-Scotsman fallacy in your phrasing, perhaps?

      • ScottEwing

        I should have added: “That only leaves paid shills and the incredibly gullible.” Which are you?

  • harleyrider1989

    Hitler’s Anti-Tobacco Campaign

    One particularly vile individual, Karl Astel — upstanding president of Jena University, poisonous anti-Semite, euthanasia fanatic, SS officer, war criminal and tobacco-free Germany enthusiast — liked to walk up to smokers and tear cigarettes from their unsuspecting mouths. (He committed suicide when the war ended, more through disappointment than fear of hanging.) It comes as little surprise to discover that the phrase “passive smoking” (Passivrauchen) was coined not by contemporary American admen, but by Fritz Lickint, the author of the magisterial 1100-page Tabak und Organismus (“Tobacco and the Organism”), which was produced in collaboration with the German AntiTobacco League.

    • Well, that’s completely relevant.

      • harleyrider1989

        This pretty well destroys the Myth of second hand smoke:

        Lungs from pack-a-day smokers safe for transplant, study finds.

        By JoNel Aleccia, Staff Writer, NBC News.

        Using lung transplants from heavy smokers may sound like a cruel joke, but a new study finds that organs taken from people who puffed a pack a day for more than 20 years are likely safe.

        What’s more, the analysis of lung transplant data from the U.S. between 2005 and 2011 confirms what transplant experts say they already know: For some patients on a crowded organ waiting list, lungs from smokers are better than none.

        “I think people are grateful just to have a shot at getting lungs,” said Dr. Sharven Taghavi, a cardiovascular surgical resident at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, who led the new study………………………

        Ive done the math here and this is how it works out with second ahnd smoke and people inhaling it!

        The 16 cities study conducted by the U.S. DEPT OF ENERGY and later by Oakridge National laboratories discovered:

        Cigarette smoke, bartenders annual exposure to smoke rises, at most, to the equivalent of 6 cigarettes/year.


        A bartender would have to work in second hand smoke for 2433 years to get an equivalent dose.

        Then the average non-smoker in a ventilated restaurant for an hour would have to go back and forth each day for 119,000 years to get an equivalent 20 years of smoking a pack a day! Pretty well impossible ehh!


        According to independent Public and Health Policy Research group, Littlewood & Fennel of Austin, Tx, on the subject of secondhand smoke……..

        They did the figures for what it takes to meet all of OSHA’S minimum PEL’S on shs/ets…….Did it ever set the debate on fire.

        They concluded that:

        All this is in a small sealed room 9×20 and must occur in ONE HOUR.

        For Benzo[a]pyrene, 222,000 cigarettes.

        “For Acetone, 118,000 cigarettes.

        “Toluene would require 50,000 packs of simultaneously smoldering cigarettes.

        Acetaldehyde or Hydrazine, more than 14,000 smokers would need to light up.

        “For Hydroquinone, “only” 1250 cigarettes.

        For arsenic 2 million 500,000 smokers at one time.

        The same number of cigarettes required for the other so called chemicals in shs/ets will have the same outcomes.

        So, OSHA finally makes a statement on shs/ets :

        Field studies of environmental tobacco smoke indicate that under normal conditions, the components in tobacco smoke are diluted below existing Permissible Exposure Levels (PELS.) as referenced in the Air Contaminant Standard (29 CFR 1910.1000)…It would be very rare to find a workplace with so much smoking that any individual PEL would be exceeded.” -Letter From Greg Watchman, Acting Sec’y, OSHA.

    • The only value this has, is that we too have the hands too busy minding others business to contend with. This is important to consider, the pendulum of societies fickle minded reactivity in regards to what people do and whether it crosses over the line or NOT!

    • David Moger

      you realise that every Internet argument end up with Hitler…… This one seems to have survived and goes on!

  • Parmenion59

    So…if a cure for lung cancer is found, and the study has been funded through money from a tobacco company…the BMJ won’t publish said study?
    Way to go BMJ.

    • As I said, I’m not wholly at ease with the ban, and possibilities like this are a factor. Possibly, the best thing would be for the ban to be prima facie, but flexible in exceptional circumstances.

      At the same time, I’m not sure that hypotheticals like yours are necessarily all that powerful, because there’s always a plausibility test. And, with the ban publicised, scientists with a hypothesis will not go to tobacco companies for sponsorship – they’d just go somewhere else. One might wonder, of course, how many scientists who aren’t already in the pocket of tobacco companies go to those companies to seek funding for lung cancer research in the first place. I’m not sure it’s going to be all that many…

      • Iain, and let us suppose that some researcher had the wild and crazy idea that increased tobacco taxes were responsible for increasing youth smoking by making underage cigarette sales more accessible to obviously underage youth. Who do you think might fund such a study? All the antismoking groups who constantly push for HIGHER cigarette taxes?

        – MJM

        • That sounds like social science research. Maybe one of the funding councils would.

          But what a strange proposal: that making something more expensive makes it more accessible. Not just desirable – not fags as giffen goods – but more accessible.

        • Strange? Not at all. Ordinary commercial sellers have a lot to lose from their ordinary inspections and such. A violation for underage selling could cost a shopowner their license. The black-marketeer has a lot more to worry about than whether some kid has an ID, and is thus more likely to easily sell to such a kid. The higher taxes produce more black marketeers since their profit ratio is higher. As there are more of them, their goods obviously become more accessible to the youth without IDs.

          Why would you find the proposal strange?


        • Ah – OK, I see what you mean. You’re concerned about generating a tax-free black market. And I think that is a reasonable concern. I don’t think that that’s the same as making cigarettes more accessible, though, especially since there’s likely to be corresponding efforts to shut down that market – and it’s likely to be only marginally cheaper anyway, since the black marketeets only have to be slightly cheaper to win the market share.

  • CyZane

    Who besides the tobacco industry has the money to conduct studies to keep the tobacco control industry in check? Who besides the tobacco industry is interested to advance research and technology towards reduced harm? Does the BMJ really wish to give free course to the tobacco control industry without any opposition and this even after they have produced and have published some of the most ridiculous studies such as outdoor smoking causing harm to bystanders, smoking only one or two cigarettes causes addiction, faint tobacco smell from the next apartment causing harm to neighbors, third hand smoke, heart attacks from a 30 minute encounter with SHS? And why does the BMJ and the smoker controllers want people and their physicians to remain ignorant of any new harm reduced technology? Are people who smoke that worthless that they don’t deserve as much as even a slightly less harmful option let alone much safer ones such as e-cigarettes and snus?

    If judges accept to examine tobacco funded research and opinion to reach their verdict, why does the BMJ feel that nothing the tobacco industry produces is worthwhile?

  • Myk

    In all of history I can’t think of any scientific group that was afraid of allowing the scientific method to play out that was in the right.
    Maybe it’s the benefit of history being written by the victors but it seems to me that every time who wrote something was more important than what they wrote the ones more worried about who than what were wrong, often wildly wrong. It doesn’t matter if it was government deciding who was the “in crowd” or if it was simply cliquish groups of scientists vs an outsider.

    I don’t know how this will play out in the history books but my initial reaction is to wonder what BMJ is trying to hide from.

    One thing I know for sure, this is not how the truth is found in science. This is how dogma is enforced.

    • I don’t think that this is about the scientific method, though – it’s about who pays for studies, and so implicitly what studies get done, and what results get released – that’s not quite the same. Nor is it clear that the BMJ is trying to hide from anything – except, perhaps, being used as an unwitting mouthpiece for BAT, Philip Morris et al

  • Allen Wright

    This may seem completely irrelevant to some (actually most), but the fact that you clearly have an extremely limited skill-set when it comes to writing makes me question the intellect used when creating this argument. I spent more time trying to decipher your atrocious use of senseless punctuation and grammar than I did grasping the actual message you were trying to portray in your stumbling.

    Perhaps studying a few English books would be in order before you continue to try and sell yourself as a writer. Especially a writer expecting to be taken seriously.

    • Oh, wow. That hurts.

      • Allen Wright

        The truth usually does my friend. Hopefully you’ll be a better writer for it now.

  • I would be interested to see if these journals have published any noteworthy or radical research at all from any tobacco industry funded source in recent years. Can you enlighten me and cite any?

    The relevant WHO FCTC (article 5.3) was signed way back around 2003 and that effectively legitimized the exclusion of any science that does not support the tobacco CONTROL consensus i.e. tobacco company research has effectively been prohibited for years, but they still serve a purpose for tobacco CONTROL as the best straw man yet invented.

    This announcement appears to be mere posturing that suggests the BMJ actually have a say in what they are allowed to publish. In effect it is more likely that they only have the autonomy that anti-smoker zealots allow them to have.

    While you hint at it, your bias is palpable and you do not seem to understand the fundamental issues or the implications of what this ban on specific interests represents. This issue is not so much about freedom of speech, as you seem to think, it is more a matter of controlling ‘the debate’ and information. It is about ‘match fixing’, ‘holding all the cards’ – ultimately it is about validity.

    Money is power in the publishing game and tobacco CONTROL has oodles of the stuff, much of it donated by the pharmaceutical industry to serve their mutual interests. Maybe you could enlighten me as to who, other than tobacco companies, have sufficient funds and would want to challenge tobacco CONTROL / big pharma propaganda and the wholesale freedoms grab they represent? Most of the big rich corporations also benefit from an agenda that seeks to blame all ill health on the individual and that diverts attention away from their own negative externality costs such as airborne pollution etc!

    You naively say “noone is trying to stop the tobacco industry making its case” but this is the whole point! They, (tobacco CONTROL zealots) DO want to deny and exclude any opposition to their agenda and will go to extreme lengths and use any means, in furtherance of that aim! They want ONLY their propaganda to have a platform, thereby to manufacture the false perception to the layman that it is all unquestioned and unassailable ‘fact’. Herein lies the fatal flaw!

    If they hold all the cards and only THEIR ‘research’ that supports THEIR case gets to be published, then they can claim anything, however absurd, with impunity (and they have already done so, in copious amounts!) Excluding any opposition means there can be no challenge to its validity, therefore it has no validity. Ultimately, without any effective checks or balance, all of that ‘research’ is worthless – invalid! Anti-smoker science has been reduced to an advocacy tool rather than to seek the truth and this tarnishes and degrades all science. The anti-smoker agenda has single-handedly destroyed trust in impartial science and set back genuine research by years, possibly even decades!

    In reality, the real opponents of tobacco CONTROL today are not tobacco companies but smokers themselves along with a growing army of informed non-smokers who are able to see beyond the glut of anti-smoker junk science and hate mongering. There is a growing realisation that the anti-smoker agenda has and will continue to cause damage and injury, that will extend way beyond their original targeted minority group, unless they can be fully exposed and neutered.

    If you think that you are part of a moral crusade to destroy that mythical devil, the malevolent tobacco company, and you subscribe to the false perception that it is supported by a majority of the public, consider this; “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” (Mark Twain).

    Reflect on the reality that rather than being in a majority, the only vocal / active supporters of the anti-smoker agenda are invariably those who are employed and paid to do so, with a few more gullible people tagging on. All the money in the world is never going to brow-beat the normal, tolerant public to kowtow to anti-smoker deceptions, bullying and bigotry – only some of the people, some of the time, can be fooled!

    Ps. I have no connection with any part of the tobacco or pharmaceutical industries other than as a consumer. Do you have any conflicts/vested interests Iain?

    • Do I have any conflicts or vested interests? Nope.

      • That being the case Iain, I suggest you take the time to research the anti-smoker deception somewhat deeper by looking beyond tobacco CONTROL propaganda. Not having even a fraction of the money that tobacco CONTROL uses to promote their agenda, the alternative, grass-roots view It is not as easy to find – but it is there!
        I recommend you start here to begin with;

      • Apologies, the ‘fighting back’ site appears to have been taken down, but this one will do just as well;

  • Keith Tayler

    I can see why the BMJ have concerns about tobacco industry funded research but think it is very late in the day to raise such concerns. There is no secrete that the tobacco industry has been spending hundreds upon hundreds of millions on genetic and genome research since the 1950s in an attempt to discover genes that predispose some people to cancer, especially lung cancer, thereby removing or greatly weakening the link between smoking and cancer. I would not like to overemphasis the influence, but much of this was due to the unholy alliance of the tobacco industry and eugenics (Ronald Fisher was the industry’s man during the 50s). Tobacco money was openly pumped into genome projects which greatly over hyped the claims that genes would be found for just about everything and that by 2010, as Collins predicted, genetic screening would be common place and we would be given genetic risk predictions for a vast array of diseases and behaviours.

    I hope the BMJ will now publish (not behind its “pay wall”) a few papers that attempt to analyse and understand how genetics and genomics have been distorted by tobacco industry funding. While it is about it, how about looking at how and why the food industry funds genetic and genomic research. Of course Big Pharma has been up to its neck in this type of research because its good for business. We should not forget state funding, the state has an interest in knowing our genes.

    As I say, rather than banning publication of research papers by particular interest groups, it might be better to openly publish more papers that expose the links groups have to particular lines of research.

    • Links that compromise the fabric of society and create elitist hierarchies that impose moral judgments with a price tag.

  • Parmenion59

    “This is McCarthyism in action. Quelling debate. Stifling opposition. Expelling and blacklisting anyone who dares express dissent. No wonder the tobacco control movement has gone off the deep end in its fanaticism. Anyone who tries to stop it knows that they will be censored or expelled. You have no choice but to go along with the groupthink.” …Dr. Michael Siegel

    • OK: So it’s all a conspiracy against those poor, vulnerable tobacco giants, yeah?

    • The neuvo way to deal with Bullying is to stand up to it.

  • Deb

    Very biased. What about the Big Pharma and Health Departments who endorse Champix which have caused suicidal thoughts and could cause suicides, nicotine patches which cost a fortune and don’t work and can cause hyperactivity, nicotine gum which taste like garbage and doesn’t work, etc. Are they going to publish any of their papers?? Just have a look at the side effects of these and then decide which is worse, tobacco or chemicals,

    • What about them? I can only write about one thing at a time, and raising points about one thing neither precludes nor necessitates raising points about others at other times. I write about whatever’s on my mind at a given moment: there’s no real agenda.

      By the way: a world without chemicals would be… um… quite empty.