Hypocrisy: Science Journals Refuse To Publish ‘Tobacco Industry’ Research

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By Cameron English 

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In order to preserve their “independence,” a growing cadre of medical journals is refusing to publish any research conducted by vaping-industry scientists. It’s a policy marred by hypocrisy that will exclude good science from the peer-reviewed literature.

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors via Pixabay

“Censorship of science is deeply troubling on many levels,” the ACLU argued in 2007. “At the most basic, it affronts the fundamental premises of the scientific method … For science to advance, knowledge must be shared. Without the free exchange of ideas, science as we understand it cannot exist and progress.” The civil liberties group was challenging efforts to prevent federal researchers from freely and thoroughly investigating climate change and AIDS, though the phenomenon—unjustified censorship of science—is alive and well 15 years later.

Earlier this year, the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) announced a policy change already implemented by several other peer-reviewed publications: it will no longer accept any content from scientists affiliated with the vaping or tobacco industries. The updated publication guidelines were instigated by a February 2022 opinion piece in the journal: The Tobacco Industry’s Renewed Assault on Science: A Call for a United Public Health Response. The authors alleged that the industry has used vaping as a means of “infiltrating” tobacco control research and subverting the anti-smoking efforts of public health experts:

“The tobacco industry is once again infiltrating scientific spaces and presenting a direct threat to the vital work of unbiased tobacco control scientists. With the popular introduction of e-cigarettes and other new nicotine products, the tobacco industry has remade itself into a self-proclaimed concerned corporate entity—and one that will go to great lengths to prop up their new products while opposing credible scientific findings.

image AJPH article

As we’ll see, this article is nonsense from top to bottom, ideological invective marred by rank hypocrisy and dubious scientific claims. The more important problem is that such a blatant defense of censorship sends a disturbing message to the public: the scientific establishment will simply shut down any line of research that doesn’t fit the appropriate political narrative.

Industry money corrupts research?

There’s no denying the tobacco industry’s history of employing underhanded PR and lobbying tactics. Cigarette companies for many years did their utmost to deny the health risks of smoking. You may even remember the CEOs of the seven largest tobacco firms denying the addictive nature of nicotine during a 1994 Congressional hearing.https://www.youtube.com/embed/e_ZDQKq2F08

History aside, the operative question for our purposes is this: are vaping companies engaging in the same malfeasance today? No, and there’s a very good reason for that. The FDA requires manufacturers to provide extensive evidence showing that their vaping products are “appropriate for the protection of public health.”

The agency has so far approved just a handful of the submitted six million product applications, and most e-cigarette and e-liquid manufacturers don’t have the scientific and financial resources to navigate the FDA’s Byzantine regulatory hurdles. The majority of these firms will simply go out of business.

The few companies that will survive this regulatory scrutiny are well-known brands like JUUL, which is partially owned by one of the world’s biggest tobacco companies. The research these firms produce to justify selling their products has to meet the highest standards, because the FDA will accept nothing less. JUUL’s chief regulatory officer made this point in a April 14 letter the AJPH refused to publish:

“Notably absent [from the AJPH opinion piece] is acknowledgment of the 2009 passage of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (TCA) giving FDA jurisdiction over tobacco products.  The TCA established the Premarket Tobacco Product Application (PMTA) process requiring that manufacturers of new tobacco products demonstrate through science and evidence that their products are ‘appropriate for the protection of the public health.’  At Juul Labs, we executed an extensive research program designed to provide FDA with the information it needs to make this determination [emphasis in original].”

Put another way, these companies have every incentive to conduct rigorous research the FDA can’t poke holes in. The AJPH piece made no effort to address this fact beyond complaining that

“Allowing tobacco industry research in scientific publications and conferences … lends the industry legitimacy and status—giving industry-sponsored research a false equivalence with independent, credible, public health research. Second, industry participation at academic conferences and other scientific arenas provides critical insight into tobacco control evidence and strategy, which the industry can then use to counter science-based policy initiatives. Third, legitimizing tobacco industry findings allows them to showcase their work to federal regulators.”

This adversarial stance seems to assume what it needs to prove, namely that industry can’t produce good science. But it also raises awkward questions about the authors’ goals. If you want to monitor the vaping industry’s behavior, shouldn’t you encourage its representatives to present their research to experts who can critique it? Don’t you want federal regulators to review their work? The answers are obvious to anyone interested in transparency.

My colleague Dr. Chuck Dinerstein adds that “none of these conferences have secret studies. All of the information is readily available in journals that have agreements to publish the proceedings of major conferences.”

About those “credible scientific findings”

What’s most ridiculous about the AJPH’s virtue signaling is that “independent” studies alleging that vaping could carry serious health risks are laughably bad. I maintain a master list of junk e-cigarette papers if you care to investigate. As a rule, these are epidemiological studies based on self-reported data, arguably the least reliable methodology public health researchers can employ. Moreover, if the results don’t fit the anti-vaping narrative, the authors pick a different conclusion to amplify in the media.

For instance, one of these papers found that vaping dramatically lowered the stroke risk of smokers who switched to e-cigarettes, from 6.75 percent to 1.09 percent. What did the authors title their presentation to the annual American Heart Association (AHA) meeting? E-cigarette users face 15% higher risk of stroke at a younger age than traditional smokers. AHA pulled the presentation from its conference at the last minute.

 If anybody is publishing low-quality research in this field, it’s the very tobacco-control scientists who accuse others of introducing “questionable findings” into the peer-reviewed literature.

Aren’t you just a tobacco shill?

Critics will inevitably assert that I wrote this article because ACSH has received some tobacco-industry funding in the past. That’s nonsense, of course. I cover vaping research because I smoked my last pack of Camel Lights a decade ago, right around the time I purchased my first e-cigarette with my doctor’s endorsement. I’m much healthier as a result, a fact I’ve learned to truly appreciate since becoming a father. It therefore boggles my mind that American anti-smoking groups continue to deny the well-documented benefits of vaping. [1] 

But if industry funding corrupts an organization’s messaging, I would like to know why the AJPH authors, Jodi Briggs and Donna Vallone, are affiliated with the Truth Initiative—an anti-smoking group that received $300 million a year for five years (p 26) from the tobacco industry. Truth now has assets in the neighborhood of $1 billion. [2]

I don’t dismiss the initiative’s claims because of their funding; their advocacy work is bad because it’s at odds with the evidence. But if Truth is going to lambast vaping-industry science while sitting on a giant pile of cigarette-company money, they should explain why they’re exempt from the conflict-of-interest standard they hold everybody else to. Their only response has been to assert that “We are *not* funded by Big Tobacco.”

Killing public trust

Before wrapping up, I want everybody to consider how the AJPH’s outburst over industry funding looks to the average person, or, better yet, to a vaccine skeptic. We now have several major medical journals openly proclaiming that they won’t publish any content if it comes from “the wrong” researchers. Anybody who opposes vaccination on the grounds that the medical establishment won’t tolerate dissent has clear evidence to support their allegation, courtesy of the tobacco-control movement.

Academics often lament the public’s refusal to get a COVID shot, put on a mask, or accept evolution. They’ve spent lots of time and (taxpayer) money constructing hypotheses to explain why so many people reject mainstream science, but the answer is clear to anyone willing to see it: we can have open, honest scientific inquiry that yields trustworthy research, or we can have ideological journals and researchers that the public increasingly ignores. I know which one I prefer.

[1] Health authorities in the UK have endorsed vaping as a quit-smoking aid. You can even buy e-cigarettes in some hospitals.

[2] See the Truth Initiative’s most recent 990 filing with the IRS, available fromvapingtobaccosmokingtruth initiativee-cigaretteFDA

By Cameron English

Director of Bioscience 

Cameron English is a writer, editor and co-host of the Science Facts and Fallacies Podcast. Before joining ACSH, he was managing editor at the Genetic Literacy Project.

  • Credit: American Council on Science and Health*
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