The American Legacy Foundation, in reporting the results of a 2005 evaluation of its "truth" campaign on its website yesterday, failed to disclose the conflict of interest of the paper's senior author, in whose statement the results were being reported.
The study in question is a March 2005 study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, which evaluated the "truth" anti-smoking media campaign, and which, according to the authors, showed that the campaign was effective in reducing youth smoking and that it had been responsible for 22% of the overall decline in youth smoking observed during the first two years of the campaign.
According to the statement: "The American Journal of Public Health published findings in March 2005 crediting truth® with accelerating the overall decline in youth smoking by 22 percent in the campaign’s first two years, 2000-2002. This translates to 300,000 fewer youth smokers in 2002 due to the truth® campaign."
The Rest of the Story
What the press release/statement does not reveal is that the study was in fact funded by the American Legacy Foundation and that the senior author of the paper is in fact the President and CEO of the Foundation.
The financial interest of the paper's senior author in the American Legacy Foundation is clearly a substantial conflict of interest that I think should be disclosed in reporting the study results. While the conflict was reported in the journal article itself, it is not being disclosed in the public presentation of these results by the American Legacy Foundation and by its President and CEO - the senior author of the paper.
While one could potentially argue that the conflict of interest need only be revealed in the publication itself and not in any reporting of the results of the paper by the author with the conflict of interest, that is not, in my opinion, a valid argument. For one thing, it kind of destroys the whole purpose of conflict of interest disclosure, which is to make readers of the article aware of the conflict so that they can have this information in mind when interpreting and evaluating the results of the study. So simply reporting the conflict in the published paper, but not when the paper's results are presented publicly in other forums, such as on a website or in a press release, does not seem sufficient.
Certainly, if the results were presented at a scientific conference, the conflict of interest would need to be disclosed. But since the potential readership to whom the results are being presented on the website is substantially larger than the likely attendance at a scientific conference, I would think that disclosure of the conflict of interest would be essential on the website as well.
The wording of the statement actually suggests that something worse than just a failure to disclose a conflict of interest is going on. It seems like the wording was chosen to try to hide the fact that the study was paid for and conducted by the Legacy Foundation and to imply that this was an independent study that was published in AJPH. The statement says that AJPH published findings in March 2005 crediting "truth" with accelerating the decline in youth smoking. But it was really Legacy that published these findings, and Legacy that credited itself with this decline in youth smoking. At very least, I think this language is very deceptive and likely to be misleading to the public, who would probably interpret the statement to think that this was completely independent research and that some independent scientists were crediting Legacy for having this impact.
The rest of the story suggests that at best, the American Legacy Foundation is acting unethically by failing to disclose a substantial conflict of interest in reporting the results of its own study which evaluated its own campaign and that at worst, there is an intentional attempt to deceive the public into thinking that this was an independent study when in fact, it was paid for, conducted by, and authored by Legacy itself.