The University of Bath's Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG) is one of a number of international organisations that joined forces to put pressure on education provider Medscape to end a lucrative deal with Philip Morris International (PMI).

This activity, part of TCRG's work to raise awareness of this unacceptable tobacco industry involvement in medical education, has also led to Medscape stating that it will no longer accept funding from organisations affiliated with the tobacco industry.

Medscape, a leading medical information company, was due to take $2.9 million from PMI to release five courses on subjects such as the health impact of tobacco products and the benefits of tobacco ‘harm reduction’. The courses seemed designed to convince medical professionals to encourage their patients to switch to other PMI product lines rather than stop using tobacco and nicotine entirely.

Investigations by The Examination, the BMJ and the Guardian revealed that there were plans to roll our further courses as well as podcasts, clinic demonstrations and ‘TV shows’. These would have the potential to reach more than 65,000 medical professionals in Medscape’s network, which includes almost 8,000 lung specialists.

The partnership was originally revealed in an investigation in the BMJ which urged that Medscape end the partnership. TCRG members were quoted in that original investigation and the investigation also cited information from TCRG’s website on the tobacco industry links of one of the Medscape course presenters.

Professor Anna Gilmore, Director of TCRG, said:

Medscape has 'now lost all credibility and has some serious questions to answer. PMI lost all credibility decades ago, despite its ceaseless and highly misleading attempts to rehabilitate its image. It has now sunk to a new low.'

Not only were TCRG members integral in initially alerting the international public health and medical communities, but research from TCRG on how corporations influence science has identified that sponsoring educational materials is a crucial part of how industries seek to disseminate their (often misleading) science to key stakeholders. Accessing healthcare professionals in this way brings them a number of advantages including increasing the chances of experts recommending the use of their products, and allowing the industry to be seen as a credible partner in science and science communication.

As Dr Tess Legg, a member of TCRG, noted in the original BMJ investigation:

Funding education for health professionals was “part of a wider plan to claw back some credibility for the tobacco industry which has seen its image take a nosedive, not least because of its decades long manipulation of science.

To add to the concerns, TCRG research also shows that science on PMI’s new heated tobacco products (HTPs) is very low quality and falls short of what is needed to determine the health risks of HTPs. Despite this, PMI promote its HTPs to potential consumers as safer alternatives to cigarettes. As highlighted throughout our research the independent evidence to date does not indicate HTPs aid smoking cessation nor that they are safer than cigarettes.

The international outcry for Medscape to end the PMI partnership was ultimately successful. However, this is unlikely to be the end of this story. There is evidence of similar sponsorships of medical education being planned and/or carried out in the Middle East and in South Africa which suggests that we will see more usage of this tactic by the tobacco industry.

This case is a lesson to all within the tobacco control community to remain vigilant of industry activities and to continue to call out all examples of industry influence in science and public health.

There is also a need for other medical professionals and training institutions to be made aware that the industry may attempt to promote their products through such partnerships and to take steps to stop this from happening.

More broadly, this episode highlights the need for greater efforts to prevent corporate funding and misuse of science.

Relevant TCRG research

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