Hypocrisy: Science Journals Refuse to Publish 'Tobacco Industry' Research

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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.

"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 up in arms over 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.

In February 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 March 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.

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 is poised to eliminate most of the vaping industry; the agency has demanded extensive evidence that every single e-cigarette product on the market is “appropriate for the protection of public health.”

Just a handful of the six million product applications have been approved, 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 endeavor are well-known tobacco-company owned brands like JUUL. The research these firms produce to justify selling their products has to meet the highest standards, because the FDA, under pressure from grandstanding politicians, could use sloppy industry-funded research as an excuse to deny JUUL and other vaping giants the right to sell their products. JUUL's chief regulatory officer made a related point in a April 14 letter the AJPH refused to publish:

 

Notably absent [from the original article] 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.

 

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 to document this fact. These are generally 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 is the very tobacco-control activists and scientists who accuse others of introducing “questionable findings” into the peer-reviewed literature.

 

Aren't you just a tobacco shill?

 

I want to address an objection that will inevitably show up in the comments below. ACSH has indeed received some tobacco-industry funding at certain points in our history. Before you dismiss this article, consider that the AJPH authors, Jodi Briggs and Donna Vallone, are affiliated with the Truth Initiative—an anti-smoking group with assets in the neighborhood of $1 billion, which was established with funding from tobacco companies in 1998. [1]

 

If industry funding corrupts an organization's messaging, the Truth Initiative must be incapable of telling the truth, at least if we're going to takes Briggs' and Vallone's standard seriously. They would no doubt furiously protest my observations about their funding, and they'd be right to do so. But if taking obscene amounts of industry money hasn't distorted their results, than scientists who work in the private sector should be given the benefit of the doubt as well—until their work is shown to be deficient in some way.

 

 

 

Killing public trust

 

Before wrapping up, I want everybody to consider how the AJPH's outburst over industry funding looks like 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.

 

Scientist spend a lot of time lamenting the public's refusal to get a shot, put on a mask, or take climate change seriously. They've spent lots of time and (taxpayer) money constructing hypotheses to explain why so many people reject mainstream science. But the answer is much simpler than any psychological theory: we can have open, honest scientific inquiry that yields trustworthy research, or we can have ideological journals and researchers that the public will increasingly ignore. I know which one I prefer.

 

 

 

[1] See the Truth Initiative's most recent 990 filing with the IRS, available from Guide Star.