Controversy is brewing in San Francisco this week as it was revealed that the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco (SRNT) accepted money from an e-cigarette company to sponsor its annual meeting which is being held this week.
It was reported this morning that SRNT accepted funding from GreenSmokeKloud, an e-liquid distributor whose products are competing with nicotine replacement therapy and Chantix for a share of the smoking cessation market.
Critics pointed out that sponsorship of the conference by GreenSmokeKloud presents a severe conflict of interest because its products are being used for smoking cessation and the SRNT conference involves numerous presentations dealing with the effectiveness or lack of effectiveness of e-cigarettes and vaping products similar to or including those manufactured by GreenSmokeKloud.
Stanley Glanton, a professor at CFSU, told The Rest of the Story that: "This is a clear-cut conflict of interest. You can't have a conference sponsored by a company that makes products which are being discussed at scientific sessions. How can we have an objective conversation about electronic cigarettes and the epidemic of youth vaping when GreenSmokeKloud signs are all over the place and conference attendees know that this company is a major sponsor of the conference?"
Several tobacco control researchers pointed out that the Food and Drug Administration is actually presenting at the conference and the FDA has regulatory jurisdiction over vaping products, creating a further conflict of interest. They also pointed out that a major theme of the research being presented is what should be the appropriate role of vaping products in smoking cessation efforts and that GreenSmokeKloud has a vested interest in the outcome of those discussions.
"You might as well just give them a seat at the table," complained one smoking cessation researcher. "They may not be physically or consciously affecting the presentations, but subconsciously everyone knows that GreenSmokeKloud is sponsoring the conference and if we diss them in our presentations, it's unlikely that they will sponsor SRNT next year. It's inappropriate that whether SRNT can get the same sponsorship money next year may actually depend on what is said or not said in the scientific presentations."
Another tobacco researcher agreed: "If the consensus at this conference is that vaping products are really not an effective smoking cessation tool and there is too much risk of youth addiction, you can bet that GreenSmokeKloud will back out of next year's conference. Let's not forget that this is a corporation whose primary goal is to make money. If their products are not cast in a positive light, they will have no incentive to return next year."
Although each speaker discloses their conflicts of interest, some conference attendees have suggested that every speaker should be required to disclose that GreenSmokeKloud is a sponsor of the conference itself. According to Dr. Glanton: "It needs to be remembered that GreenSmokeKloud is casting a cloud on this entire conference. If a vaping company is sponsoring the conference, attendees should be reminded of that at the beginning of each and every presentation, especially if the talk is evaluating e-cigarettes in terms of their use in smoking cessation."
The Rest of the Story
Wait a minute. I apologize. I just received word that I got the story slightly wrong. GSK is indeed sponsoring the conference, but GSK doesn't stand for GreenSmokeKloud, it stands for GlaxoSmithKline, and it's not producing vaping products for smoking cessation, it's producing nicotine replacement products for smoking cessation. Also, Pfizer is another conference sponsor and they produce Chantix, a drug that is marketed for smoking cessation.
Indeed, according to the official SRNT program, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer are both major sponsors of the conference.
After the tobacco researchers quoted above were informed of my mistake, they all retracted their statements and told me that they saw nothing wrong with these pharmaceutical companies sponsoring the conference, even though they make products whose effectiveness is being discussed at the conference and their financial well-being depends on the consensus that may develop at the conference based on the content of the presentations that directly address their effectiveness.
"We don't see any conflict of interest here and the financial support of these corporations is necessary to continue to hold these important conferences," one of the researchers told me.
Since being informed of my mistake, everything has calmed down and it is back to business as usual at the SRNT conference.