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Editorial

A New Policy on Tobacco Papers

  • Published: February 23, 2010
  • DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1000237

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Policy Puzzle...

Posted by MichaelJMcFadden on 24 Feb 2010 at 01:14 GMT


I must admit, your editorial on accepting tobacco funded research leaves me puzzled. Your first paragraph serves as an introduction. The second notes various political strategies used by the tobacco industry to interfere with EU regulations on their industry, with the strategies employed probably being quite common to almost any large industry facing potentially harmful government regulations. The third paragraph contains what seem to be the most serious in terms of impact on PLoS policy since it discusses and presents a case for actual pharmaceutical industry direct interference and fraud regarding an issue that directly relates to such things as smoking bans and tobacco taxes, namely the effectiveness of pharmacologically assisted quitting methods that stand to benefit the pharmaceutical industry financially after the implementation of such bans and taxes. The fourth paragraph announces that a new policy will be implemented on "tobacco papers" at PLoS.

So why am I puzzled? Simple: Without reading further, one would expect that the new policy would be to refuse papers concerning bans, taxes, and smoking cessation methods where the authors could be argued to have "Big Pharma" connections. But instead, the fifth paragraph announces that PLoS will be refusing papers based upon tobacco company funding! That is what I find puzzling.

True, the second and fifth paragraphs make a strong case about the negative aspects of smoking and the past actions of tobacco companies, but the strongest case for a publication-related decision seems to have been made in the third paragraph about recent study distortions by pharmaceutical interests. If PLoS was going to make such decision in this area at all one would naturally have expected the target to be pharmaceutical rather than tobacco interests. Indeed, since the paper referenced in the second paragraph specifically notes that "To date, chemical companies appear to have been more successful than tobacco companies at employing IA (Impact Assessment) in the EU, having employed IA to delay and weaken EU regulation...." one might have expected that if the target went beyond banning pharmaceutical-supported research that the secondary target might be the chemical industry rather than the tobacco industry. (1)

If we were speaking of a world of thirty years ago, and if PLoS had today's information back then, then a decision to distrust what might seem to be good science on the basis of funding originator might be more reasonable (although still questionable - after all, should our scientific journals EVER use anything other than sound science as a guideline in their publications?), but given the amount of regulation of and focus upon tobacco industry tactics today I think the PLoS decision seems far more ideological in basis than scientific.

It almost seems like a decision by a political science journal to refuse what might otherwise seem to be good papers on the Middle East conflict if they were supported by any of the involved states or institutions with declared strong sympathies in the conflict, or papers dealing with the pharmacological effects of drugs if such papers were supported by the pharmacological industry. True, the journals might have a hard time finding good research in such areas once such funding guidelines were in place but, as evidenced by the groundbreaking research done by Missouri researcher Dave Kuneman and myself on post-ban heart attack rates five years ago (which was recently supported by the results of research conducted by the Institute Of Medicine (corrected) and RAND/NBER that found virtually no reduction in heart attack rates after smoking ban), such unfunded research can indeed be valuable and should not be shunted aside simply because the politically unpalatable results are deemed not to have "added enough, for general readers, to what is already known about smoking and health." Note however that our research basically contradicted the BMJ's previously published research in its entirety. (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)

This is not a new issue by any means. Three years ago the University of Alberta decided to refuse all research funding from tobacco companies and the Edmonton Journal agreed to publish my very strong response against that decision on April 9th, 2007. Of course it was followed up with a counter-response that predictably and incorrectly implied that I had connections with, you guessed it, tobacco industry funding. The Journal did not subsequently publish my defense against that claim. I submit several strong points of my article here for present consideration:

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(Your) editorial states as fact that the University of Alberta's decision to refuse all research funding from tobacco companies "will enhance the school's reputation as a centre of independent research."

Actually, the opposite is true.

If the university rejects all studies that would be funded by those arguably supporting one particular view while welcoming funding from those supporting the opposite view, it can hardly be called an enhancement to independent research. ...

Research studies are always inherently biased to some degree in their design, choice of subject or data, and ultimate interpretation so as to please the potential funder.

The argument could even be made that "no-strings" grants from Big Tobacco might be truly more impartial overall than grants from organizations that state clearly that their grants are meant to advance the goal of reducing smoking.

This push for universities to limit grants to those supporting "politically acceptable" research is both unethical and, in light of what we have seen historically in other countries, actually dangerous. Researchers should be free to seek support for their work and beliefs wherever that search for support should take them.

That is the only true way to advance scientific knowledge. (7)

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In summation: I believe it is a serious error on the part of the Journal to make publication decisions based upon the funding source of research quality. If the Journal was going to make any such judgement then I believe that in the interest of sound science it should refuse all research funded by ANY commercial or governmental source with potential competing interests - such as, for example, any ban or tax-related research funded by Big Tobacco money laundered through the Master Settlement Agreement into antismoking organizations.

Somehow though I doubt PLoS will find much support for such a policy among the many grant-addicted researchers out there.

Michael J. McFadden
Author of "Dissecting Antismokers' Brains"
MidAtlantic Director, Citizens Freedom Alliance
Director, Pennsylvania Smokers Action Network
Board of Directors, The International Coalition Against Prohibition
(All positions unfunded and without compensation.)
(Financial competing interest: book authorship)

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REFERENCES:

(1) Stead L, Perera R, Bullen C, Mant D, Lancaster T (2007) Nicotine replacement therapy for smoking cessation. Cochrane Database Syst Rev CD000146: Find this article online

(2) Correction for Meyers et al., J Am Coll Cardiol 54 (14) 1249-1255.
J Am Coll Cardiol, 2009; 54:1902, doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2009.10.004
http://content.onlinejacc...

(3) Siegel, Michael http://tobaccoanalysis.bl...

(4) Shetty, KD et al (2009) Changes in U.S. hospitalization and Mortality Rates Following Smoking Bans" http://www.nber.org/paper...

(5) Kuneman DW, McFadden, MJ (2005) http://www.scribd.com/doc...

(6) McFadden MJ. Kuneman DW (2007)http://www.acsh.org/facts...

(7) McFadden, MJ. (04/09/2007) " 'No Strings' funding from Big Tobacco makes research more impartial" Edmonton Journal http://www.canada.com/edm...

Competing interests declared: Michael J. McFadden
Author of "Dissecting Antismokers' Brains"
MidAtlantic Director, Citizens Freedom Alliance
Director, Pennsylvania Smokers Action Network
Board of Directors, The International Coalition Against Prohibition
(All positions unfunded and without compensation.)
(Financial competing interest: book authorship)

RE: Policy Puzzle...

MichaelJMcFadden replied to MichaelJMcFadden on 24 Feb 2010 at 21:45 GMT

few minor corrections:


1) My summation's first sentence should read: In summation: I believe it is a serious error on the part of the Journal to make publication decisions based upon the funding source of a study rather than upon the research quality of a study.

2)The titles of references 5 and 6 are, respectively:

5: "The Impact of State-Wide Smoking Bans on Acute Myocardial Infarction Hospital Admissions in California and Other States"

6: "A Study Delayed..."

- MJM

Competing interests declared: As noted in my main posting above.