Calls to change medical journals’ Big Tobacco policies

Chelsea Heaney

6/06/2024 4:50:36 PM

More than 30 leading medical journals still accept tobacco-funded research, prompting an expert to ask, ‘where do you draw the line?’

Carton of cigarettes on top of money.
he research found few policies in medical journals banning research directly or indirectly funded by Big Tobacco.

Leading medical journals are still publishing tobacco-funded research worldwide, with a joint investigation from The Investigative Desk and the BMJ, prompting the researchers to urge publications to distance themselves.
To form their findings, authors went through 40 medical journals, ranked highly by analytics company Clarivate, and found the top 10 general publications as well as the top 10 in three key areas – oncology, cardiac and cardiovascular, and respiratory medicine.
Using the PubMed database, the team then found ‘hundreds of relationships between Big Tobacco’s medical and pharmaceutical subsidiaries and medical research’ going back to 1996.
They also found that only eight in those 40 (20%) had specific policies prohibiting studies ‘wholly or partly funded by the tobacco industry’.
‘Of the 10 journals in the field of respiratory medicine, six had a tobacco policy, but in oncology only one did, and in cardiology, none had,’ the study reads.
An editorial piece accompanying the findings and published in support of BMJ’s new blanket ban on any research affiliated with tobacco companies or subsidiaries also calls on other journals to adopt similar policies as the goals between them and the research funding companies are ‘fundamentally misaligned’.
‘In addition to excluding research funded by the tobacco industry, our journals will also exclude work where authors have personal financial ties to the tobacco industry,’ they state.
For Dr Hester Wilson, Chair of RACGP Specific Interests Addiction Medicine, the ban is a welcome move that should be adopted more widely.
‘If we’re looking at a company that makes money out of selling tobacco or e-cigarettes, something that is highly dependence forming, we’ve really got to ask, what’s the benefit of that company on needing the research?’ she told newsGP.
‘They’re not doing it to be good corporate citizens, they’re selling a product that kills people.’
Data can be reinterpreted in multiple ways, and you can get different answers depending on the questions you ask, according to Dr Wilson.
‘Intelligent people doing their best, with the best interests at heart, still might not have statistical understanding and they might take what’s in a paper and interpret it exactly as it’s written,’ she said.
‘You’ve just got to really be aware of the potential conflicts interest.
‘It’s a complex issue, but my concern is that we really should be distancing ourselves.’
But Professor Nick Zwar, Chair of the RACGP’s Smoking Cessation Guidelines’ Expert Advisory Group, has a different view. He told newsGP that, while he can see the contradiction in tobacco funding for health research, it would be ‘really hard to know’ where to draw the line.
He says one example is Vectura, a ‘perfectly respectable’ pharmaceutical company which makes inhaled medicines and inhaler devices and has been acquired by large multinational tobacco company Philip Morris.
‘So how do you now treat any research that comes from Vectura or Vectura’s past employees?’ Professor Zwar asks.
‘It’s owned by a tobacco company, but it’s making a medicine.
‘How many degrees of separation away from the tobacco industry [until] you say, “well, that’s sufficiently distanced”?’
According to the BMJ, tobacco companies are investing billions of dollars in medical research and even when publishers try to restrict their ties, many struggle to identify which subsidiaries are inextricably linked to the industry.
‘Tobacco companies have funded front groups and have diversified into pharmaceutical and health technology,’ the research reads.
It highlights these investments also include treatments for conditions that are caused or aggravated by smoking, including asthma and lung cancer.
So, was this bulk buying in pharmaceuticals just a good financial move for the Big Tobacco players or something potentially more cynical?
Dr Zwar suggests it is far from accidental.
‘[By] buying into the pharmaceutical industry and becoming pharmaceutical manufacturers … they are trying to reinvent themselves as companies with a much broader range of investments or products than combustible tobacco,’ he said.
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A.Prof Christopher David Hogan   7/06/2024 4:11:06 PM

It is said that even the Devil can speak the truth occasionally .
There is no guarantee that just because research is funded by a tobacco group that it is wrong or inappropriate. However, as Agatha Christie wrote in the persona of Miss Marples "The reason cynicism is so popular is because it is so often correct".
I feel that it is sufficient that the conflict of interest and the funding declarations all journals insist on is adequate.
Indeed, there are some who distrust any commercial funding of research & rather optimistically believe that Government funded research is impartial.
I prefer the view of the ancient Greek philosopher who stated the none of us can claim to be impartial, the best we can expect is for us to recognise our prejudices.