GLOBAL: Should researchers take tobacco money?

Are universities ever right to accept money from the tobacco industry for research or is it always tainted somehow? The issue has been around for decades but a recent spat in America has given it a new airing.

In June The New York Times published an account of a contract between Philip Morris USA, America's largest tobacco company, and Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond that was highly unusual in giving the tobacco company not only the right to bar publication or discussion of the research but also assigned to itself all patent and intellectual property rights flowing from the research.

Responding, Dr Rick Solana, Philip Morris's senior vice president for research and technology, said that once the company concluded that its competitive interests were protected regarding any research results, it could permit publication.

"Once the intellectual property is protected, then it's usually OK to publish. Something being proprietary does not mean something cannot be published," he told the newspaper.

Some antismoking organisations maintain that research which the industry pays for is near to worthless, or at best suspect. Monika Kosińska, Secretary-General of the European Public Health Alliance, for instance, says, "Where there's a conflict of interest between the organisation producing the products and the health outcome, that research is always compromised".

By contrast the industry argues that the more money engaged in research, the better the health benefits: "Maximising the funding available for researchers can offer the greatest potential benefits in addressing the health risks associated with smoking," says Marija Sepic, manager of external communications at Philip Morris International.

It's not always clear-cut though. Dr Carl Phillips, an associate professor in the public health sciences department at Canada's University of Alberta and editor-in-chief of Epidemiologic Perspectives & Innovations, says, "It's difficult to do creative, honest research on tobacco use without industry funding."

Most of the research that non-industry funding sources were willing to support was simply "rehashes of tired, misleading conventional wisdom," he says. Anti-tobacco "fundamentalists" had effectively censored research on harm reduction, on why people liked to use tobacco, "and on other topics that might interfere with their prohibitionist political agenda".

"One of their favoured tactics has been to trick the public health community into believing that independent researchers who take industry funding - even in the typical situation where the research is investigator-initiated and the funder has no influence over the methods or results - are 'biased', while researchers who are employed by anti-tobacco activist organisations, or accept grants that specify what research they must do (and often even declare what the results should be) are 'unbiased'," he says.

In sharp contrast the leading US public health agency CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) argues that opponents of public health (in which they include the tobacco industry) frequently attempted to "manufacture uncertainty" by questioning the validity of scientific evidence on which health regulations were based.

Producers of tobacco and other hazardous products frequently ridiculed any research that threatened their interests as "junk science", said CDC. The agency always had in mind the funding source and other potential biases when considering research.

One of America's best-known antismoking campaigners, Professor John F. Banzhaf III who is founder and executive director of the leading antismoking organisation ASH, says the industry has "used or misused research for well over 40 years for a variety of underhand purposes".

"They funded research in order to create the impression that there was controversy where there wasn't. They have used money to pressure and cajole researchers into writing editorials and op-ed pieces which were favourable to the tobacco industry," Banzhaf says.

"They have tried to obtain respectability by giving research money to respectable institutions like Harvard University and the American Medical Association but if the research was unfavourable they then tried to suppress the conclusions and prevent publication, or at least require that it was presented in the least damaging way to the industry."

Today, the big tobacco companies "are continuing with the same old practices that worked very well before, namely to create the appearance of controversy where there really is none, to get a few scientists to say no to widely-accepted facts or to advance an alternative theory for the dangers".

But the tide is turning "and I don't think any reputable organisation today will accept tobacco industry money no matter what kind of rules the industry says it is establishing to create a Chinese wall," Banzhaf says.

The companies are nothing if not tenacious though. The British American Tobacco giant has just launched a website allowing non-affiliated scientists to read and evaluate the company's research findings. "We're spending huge amounts on science and there's really no reason at all we'd do this if it merely led to pre-ordained results," said a BAT spokeswoman.