Wednesday, March 16, 2011

IN MY VIEW: Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco (SRNT) Has Compromised Its Scientific Integrity by Accepting Pharmaceutical Money

According to its web site: "The Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco (SRNT) is the leading association focused on this special area of research. SRNT was founded in 1994 to coordinate and advance research on a broad array of topics ranging from the pharmacology of nicotine to the societal influences on use of tobacco.

"The mission of the Society is to stimulate the generation of new knowledge concerning nicotine in all its manifestations - from molecular to societal. The Society has three main aims:
  1. To sponsor scientific meetings and publications fostering the exchange of information on nicotine and tobacco.
  2. To encourage scientific research on public health efforts for the prevention and treatment of tobacco use.
  3. To provide a means by which legislative, governmental, regulatory and other public agencies can obtain expert advice and consultation on nicotine and tobacco."
The Rest of the Story

Although its main purpose is presumably to foster objective scientific consideration of the issues regarding nicotine and tobacco control, what is not immediately apparent to web site viewers is that the Society is apparently heavily funded by the pharmaceutical industry. This funding, in my view, creates a substantial conflict of interest that precludes the objective consideration of many important scientific issues; in particular, the role of smoking cessation drugs as part of national or international tobacco control strategies.

On its web site, the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco acknowledges financial support from three different pharmaceutical companies: GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer.

The 2011 annual meeting of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco, held last month in Toronto, was supported by three different pharmaceutical companies: GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer.

One way in which the conflict of interest created by these pharmaceutical sponsorships may play out is in the determination of the scientific agenda for the annual meeting. For example, while the annual meeting program highlights several talks about the benefits of Chantix (manufactured by conference sponsor Pfizer), I cannot find in the program any talk dedicated to discussing the many suicides and other serious adverse effects attributed to Chantix. I could find no paper, for example, which focuses on the reported effects of Chantix on suicidal ideation, completed suicide, or other violent behavior.

How can one expect that the Society would include in the program a talk on the hundreds of cases of violent and often fatal adverse effects that have been reported with Chantix when the drug's manufacturer is a major sponsor of the conference?

There were numerous papers presented about the effects of smoking cessation drugs. How can these papers present a completely objective picture of the efficacy of these medications when the manufacturers of these drugs are the very sponsors of the conference?

This is in no way to fault the individual scientists who presented on these issues at the conference. Nor is it to suggest that any wrongdoing occurred. It is merely to point out that the pharmaceutical sponsorship creates, by its very existence, an unavoidable bias that precludes a truly objective consideration of any scientific issue that may have significant implications for the profitability of smoking cessation drugs, and therefore, for their manufacturers who are conference sponsors.

It is also important to point out that bias does not necessarily have to be conscious. In fact, the most concerning bias is that which could arise subconsciously by virtue of the sponsorship of the conference by Big Pharma.

I should also note that SRNT is not unique in relying upon pharmaceutical company sponsorship. As I noted yesterday, the 14th World Conference on Tobacco OR Health, which was held in Mumbai, India in March 2009, was sponsored by two of the largest representatives of Big Pharma: GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer. The 2007 National Conference on Tobacco or Health was sponsored by Pfizer, as was at least one event at the 2009 Conference. And the Sixth National Conference on Tobacco or Health in Canada in 2009 was also sponsored by Pfizer.

I should once again highlight the International Society for the Prevention of Tobacco Induced Diseases (ISPTID) as one of the few national or international organizations that, despite past acceptance of sponsorships from Big Pharma, has changed and found other ways to support its annual meetings. I understand the difficulty of finding funding to support these large meetings. But it is possible to find alternative sources of funding. Failing to do so compromises the scientific integrity of these conferences.

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