Monday, February 03, 2014

Anti-Smoking Groups Attack Tobacco Industry Consultants for Failed Disclosures in Medical Journal Articles

A number of anti-smoking groups are attacking two former tobacco industry consultants for failing to disclose their history of funding by the tobacco industry in a set of two commentaries they published recently in a pair of major medical journals. The journals have both responded by admonishing the authors and requiring them to publish a correction in the next issues of the journals.

The commentaries by the two former tobacco industry consultants, university professors at a major midwestern medical school, are not in any way pro-tobacco, although they do criticize a number of current anti-smoking initiatives because they are ineffective and not based on sound formative research.

The reason for the failure of these researchers to disclose their past relationships with the tobacco industry is not entirely clear, but may revolve around their interpretation of the conflict of interest disclosure form's requirements. In section 3 of the form, authors of articles are asked to disclose any financial relationships with industry that occurred within the past three years. However, neither of the two co-authors has received money from any tobacco companies since 2010.

Nevertheless, the anti-smoking groups insist that the tobacco industry funding should have been disclosed. For one, they argue that section 5 of the form insists that authors disclose any other conflicts of interest, even if they occurred prior to the past three years. Second, they argue that the history of funding by tobacco companies is well within the spirit of the disclosure requirement and that the authors have an obligation to let readers know that in the past, they have had financial relationships with Big Tobacco.

The specific financial interests of the co-authors, according to the anti-smoking groups are:

1. Between 2003 and 2008, one of the authors performed consultation services for R.J. Reynolds and Lorillard and conducted research at his medical school which was funded by R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, and Liggett. The total annual amount of his consulting payments from Big Tobacco was as high as $40,000. While the amount of grant funding received from tobacco companies is not clear, one of the anti-smoking groups has documented that the level of funding in 2005 was $400,000 and in 2004 was $1 million.

2. Between 2010 and 2012, the other co-author conducted studies using a variety of smokeless tobacco products. While the studies were not funded by a tobacco company, the study products were provided free of charge by U.S. Tobacco. Previously, this co-author did conduct tobacco industry-funded studies, which he acknowledged in a 2008 publication. This funding apparently goes all the way back to at least 2000. In addition, the researcher used to do consulting work for Star Scientific, U.S. Tobacco, Liggett, and Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, although none of that consulting occurred within the past three years.

While neither of the researchers could be reached for comment, sources familiar with their work told the Rest of the Story that these authors do not feel their historical funding by Big Tobacco and consulting for Big Tobacco needs to be disclosed because it occurred more than 36 months ago.

However, the anti-smoking groups did not buy this argument. One organization's spokesperson told me: "The conflict of interest form clearly asks for the disclosure of all financial relationships that could be perceived as biasing an author's opinion, and there is no 36-month limit for such disclosures. Section 5 of the form refers to any and all conflicts of interest, regardless of when they occurred. These researchers are breaking not only the spirit, but also the letter of these policies."

A spokesperson from one of the leading national anti-smoking groups commented: "The more things change, the more they stay the same. This just goes to show that the tobacco industry is still able to unduly influence medical research reporting, even if they are not currently paying their consulting scientists. These conflicts of interest were firmly established in the past and the conflicted scientists continue to do the tobacco industry's bidding."

The communications director for another national anti-smoking group added: "This just goes to show that the tobacco companies have not changed. They will go to any extent to keep America's children smoking, even paying university scientists to do their dirty work for them."

Another anti-smoking group, responding via email, told me that: "This is precisely how the tobacco industry has influenced the reporting of science. By funding research at universities and engaging professors and researchers as consultants, the industry introduced a bias that influenced these scientist's conduct and reporting of their subsequent research. While the financial relationships may have ended in the light of the public's disdain for the tobacco industry and the public revelations that came out of the DOJ lawsuit, these biases do not just disappear overnight. It is irresponsible and unethical for these researchers to hide their past financial relationships with Big Tobacco, even if the money changed hands more than 36 months ago."

The Rest of the Story

The Rest of the Story regrets to inform readers that a mistake was made in the above report. While the bulk of the report is true and accurate, there were a few minor, technical errors made:

1. The financial conflicts of interest involved in these commentaries were not with tobacco companies, but with pharmaceutical companies. Every instance where "tobacco company" appears should be replaced with "pharmaceutical company," and "Big Tobacco" should be replaced with "Big Pharma." The article errantly refers to R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard, Brown & Williamson, Star Scientific, U.S. Tobacco, Liggett, and Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company. These companies should have been listed as Elan Pharmaceutical, SmithKline Beecham, Glaxo Wellcome, GlaxoSmithKline, Nabi Biopharmaceuticals, Pfizer, Sanofi-Synthelabo, sanofi-aventis, Lederle, Ciba-Geigy, McNeil Consumer Products, and Pharmacia. We apologize for any inconvenience these errors may have caused.

2. In contrast to what we reported above, the anti-smoking groups have not - I repeat, have not - criticized the researchers for failing to disclose their conflicts of interest. They did not argue that "section 5 of the form refers to any and all conflicts of interest, regardless of when they occurred," and that "these researchers are breaking not only the spirit, but also the letter of these policies." We apologize for having incorrectly insinuated that these anti-smoking groups are concerned about the scientific and ethical integrity of published tobacco control research.

3. Also in contrast to what we reported above, the journals in which these articles were published have not asked the authors to correct their disclosures by revealing their significant history of financial relationships with the pharmaceutical industry. 

We apologize for any inconvenience caused by these small, technical errors in our reporting.

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