Journals’ pages covered in tobacco stains

4 minute read

This industry is not going down without a fight. Sometimes there’s not even a fight.

Bad guys don’t come much bigger in health than Big Tobacco.  

So why are major journals still full of tobacco-flavoured research?  

Smoke must get in their eyes, judging from this investigation by The Investigative Desk, a public interest journalism co-operative, and the BMJ.  

They found that despite tobacco’s “long history of subverting science”, most journals don’t have any policies banning papers funded directly by tobacco companies or, more insidiously, their many medical and pharmaceutical subsidiaries – including those in the business of treating ailments caused by smoking.  

Here is a handy interactive graphic of the five biggest tobacco brands, the companies they own and the number of scientific papers they have managed to get published.  

The team quote Dutch physician and pulmonary disease researcher Dr Wytse van den Bosch, who was working with a grant from Vectura when it was acquired by Philip Morris International. His work was still published in a European Respiratory Society journal with a no-tobacco policy. 

“It is awkward to suddenly find yourself affiliated with a company whose sole purpose is to sell cigarettes,” he tells the TID/BMJ team.  

But this is a long-lasting kind of awkwardness: “If you want to go to a conference, present an abstract, or submit a paper, the first thing they ask is: do you have any connections with a tobacco manufacturer? I have to say: yes. 

“I am at the start of my career, I want to become a paediatrician, and I would very much like to stay active in research. My name is now associated with Vectura, and Vectura with PMI. So I am now affiliated with the tobacco industry myself.” 

A literature search (going all the way back to 1996) revealed nearly 900 papers with at least one researcher linked to a tobacco company. Most were in journals with no anti-tobacco policy, but 27 were in 13 journals that did have such a policy.  

The team surveyed the top 10 general medical journals and the top 10 in the three specialities most affected by smoking: oncology, cardiac and cardiovascular, and respiratory. Only eight of these 40s had a policy, six of them respiratory. One oncology journal had a policy and only one general journal: the BMJ itself.  

But even the BMJ couldn’t be smug for long as not all its various titles had managed to exclude studies funded by tobacco subsidiaries or organisations in receipt of tobacco money.  

BMJ Open had to retract a paper last year when it realised its principal funder was taking money from the entirely PMI-funded and wickedly titled Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. 

The BMJ strengthened its policies the week this study was published.  

The policyless journals, when questioned, mostly relied on their standard declaration of interests policies.  

Some make excuses, like the editor in chief of Vaccines, which published a study in 2021 authored by employees of the British American Tobacco subsidiary Kentucky BioProcessing. “We were then (and still are) in a SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, thus there was a responsibility to evaluate stable, effective, easy-to-manufacture vaccines needed to stop the covid-19 pandemic,” Professor Ralph Tripp told the team.  

“The manuscript in question was reviewed and subsequently accepted based on its scientific merits only. The publication did not promote anything.” 

Professor Ruth Malone, former ed-in-chief of BMJ Tobacco Control, isn’t having any of that attitude. The only safe option is to reject money and research from an industry with such a history of duplicity and “stoking division around the endlessly proliferating array of new tobacco and nicotine products and their potential to be less harmful to users”. 

“People may not realise how their work will be deployed to advance industry strategic goals,” Professor Malone says.  

This is a business with tricks up its sleeve, a strong will to survive and buckets of money to tempt naïve and impoverished scientists. Time for journals to quit for good.  

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