The tobacco industry produces a product that, used as intended, kills millions of people each year. So it seems a lot to ask the industry to assume ethical standards in another of its favorite endeavors—funding scientific research.
The tobacco industry is up to some of its usual antics, as reported by
The New York Times. It seems tobacco money helped fund one of the most controversial studies to recently emerge from The New England Journal of Medicine.
The study concluded that the widespread use of CT scans could prevent 80 percent of lung cancer deaths.
The primary author of the study, Claudia Henschke of Weill Cornell Medical College declared funding through a little-known group, the Foundation for Lung Cancer: Early Detection, Prevention and Treatment. It took an investigative
reporter checking tax records to discover that foundation is actually funded by the parent company of the Liggett group, which manufactures several cigarette brands. Henschke did not reveal the source of the foundation’s money to the journal—what’s more, she helped create the foundation and is its president; the dean of Weill Cornell is a director.
The study’s findings obviously are favorable to the tobacco industry. But they have been controversial in part because early screening can lead to unnecessary procedures for spots on a CT scan that are not an imminent threat to health. A $200 million follow-up trial is now under way at the NCI.
What the tobacco linkage will mean for the validity of the study in the minds of experts remains to be seen—although this quote, from Catherine D. DeAngelis, the editor of The Journal of the American Medical Association, is telling:
I would never publish a paper dealing with lung cancer from a person who had taken money from a tobacco company.
Why so much fuss?
As DeAngelis is undoubtedly aware, the industry’s influence in this study fits into an overall pattern.
Tobacco companies fund research that has the potential to minimize the severe effects of smoking, and they also underwrite unrelated, legitimate, research, to bolster their reputation. It’s also not unusual for tobacco companies to keep their fingerprints away from the research they fund.
Tobacco companies also have a well-documented history of trying to stir up ‘debate’ about the dangers of smoking and second-hand smoke. Their support of research to bolster their arguments helped, for many years,
create public uncertainty about the dangers of tobacco and staved off anti-tobacco legislation. Sowing doubt about generally-accepted science is a tactic that foes of global warming legislation successfully borrowed; indeed, the tobacco industry spawned some of the ‘think tanks’ that now fight against global-warming legislation by supporting industry-friendly scientists.
Manipulating science has been a core tactic of the tobacco industry for years. So it’s not surprising that some schools, such as Harvard’s School of Public Health, have banned tobacco money. The University of California system refused to follow suit, but they have implemented a system of extra scrutiny over research funded by the tobacco industry. Opponents of a ban in California argued that it would constrain ‘academic freedom.’
What do you think? Does the source of funding for the NEJM study throw its findings into doubt? Or is this all a bunch of fuss about nothing?
Finally, is it fair for the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association to refuse lung cancer papers funded by the tobacco industry?