The Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (the Foundation) is the latest research organisation to push science paid for by the tobacco industry and to obfuscate the link, according to new research from the University of Bath and Corporate Accountability, published by Tobacco Control. The research shows that, despite overwhelming historical evidence of the tobacco industry using ‘independent’ third parties such as the Foundation, scientific publishing processes are still failing to address the problem.
Third party front groups
In the 1950s, when it needed to show its cigarettes were safe, the tobacco industry hid its attempts to influence science by giving money to third parties to produce research that supported its business objectives.
In the 2000s, US litigation found the tobacco industry guilty of conspiring to deceive the public about smoking. Earlier litigation had found that research organisations it funded were key in this conspiracy. Three such organisations were shut down and the industry banned from recreating similar ones.
However, Philip Morris International (PMI), the world’s largest transnational tobacco company, was not party to the original litigation and therefore able to set up such a front group. In 2017, just after it launched IQOS, a heated tobacco product, PMI established the tax-exempt Foundation and originally planned to give it almost US$1bn over twelve years.
Due to widespread recognition of the industry’s duplicitous use of science – and the unwitting role that academic journals can play in that – many journals will not publish research paid for directly or indirectly by Big Tobacco.
Despite this, researchers at the University of Bath and Corporate Accountability have uncovered several cases – three of which they examine in the paper – of the Foundation and those it funds trying to get their research into scientific journals, while obscuring their links to tobacco.
The three case studies reveal that:
- Foundation staff and grantees are publishing research which supports misleading tobacco industry arguments, including that the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (the world’s first global health treaty) is not fit for purpose, and that, in contravention of that treaty, governments should collaborate with the tobacco industry to reduce smoking.
- Foundation staff sowed confusion about the Foundation’s links to Big Tobacco in dealings with a scientific journal, and sought control over the journal’s editorial processes.
- Foundation-funded organisations and affiliated researchers, including those working as editors and peer-reviewers, failed to disclose that they have links to the Foundation and to PMI.
- The Foundation and its grantees tried to publish in journals with lax or poorly enforced conflict of interest policies, resulting in the publication of science which leaves readers unaware of its connection to Big Tobacco.
- Journals failed to apply policies for rejecting research funded by the tobacco industry or that require full disclosure of conflicts of interest.
Lawsuit against the Foundation
These findings come at a crucial time. Allegations in a lawsuit filed against the Foundation by a former employee in January 2021 suggest that it actively collaborates with the tobacco industry to promote the latter’s interests and products. The allegations support growing evidence that the Foundation plays a public relations role for PMI and make the latest findings even more concerning, say the researchers.
Tess Legg of the University of Bath's Tobacco Control Research Group explains:
PMI channels large amounts of research money through the Foundation, which flows down to its grant recipients. It is clear that some researchers linked to the Foundation (including those working as peer reviewers and editors) are not being fully transparent about their connections to the tobacco industry. This means, not only that industry-linked science is finding its way into scientific journals, but that those links are often hidden. Further, this kind of obfuscation from the Foundation and its grantees makes it incredibly difficult for editors that are trying to rigorously apply policies on conflicts of interest and transparency to ensure science is protected from Big Tobacco’s influence. To help with this, an independently verified database of the financial interests of all researchers, peer-reviewers and editors is urgently needed. In the meantime, editors and reviewers can check the Tobacco Tactics website to see whether authors have tobacco industry links.
According to Professor Anna Gilmore, director of the Tobacco Control Research Group:
"There is a real danger of history repeating itself. Despite what we know about the tobacco industry’s history of scientific misconduct, and despite clear evidence that the Foundation is the latest tobacco industry scientific front group, existing systems for governing tobacco industry conflicts of interest in science are clearly inadequate."
"We should not allow major tobacco companies to use their vast resources to drive a research agenda that acts against the public interest. Instead, science in this area should be funded through legally mandated payments from the tobacco industry which are then independently administered. Systems for this have been proposed and are already successfully operating in some jurisdictions. That’s the best way to ensure we have truly independent science that is fit for purpose."
Michél Legendre, associate campaign director, Corporate Accountability added:
"The Foundation is one of Big Tobacco's countless tactics meant to disrupt live-saving policy, sow doubt, spread misinformation, and normalize the industry for a new generation of addiction and death. Scientific journals can be a first line of defence to protect public health – and should not act as a shill for the industry and its front groups. Implementing recommendations from this research, like strong conflict of interest policies and rejecting the tobacco industry can protect the integrity of scientific publications and protect against co-optation by industry interests."