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„Tobacco industry-funded research needs to be viewed with a healthy dose of scepticism“

Science for profit? Tess and her research group have been investigating the strategies used by different industries to influence science. In a survey, they found that the British public has a surprisingly high level of trust in research that is funded by the tobacco industry. 

In your research, you focus on the influence of industries on science. What strategies do they normally use? 

Tess Legg is a postdoctoral research associate in the Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG) in the Department for Health, University of Bath, UK. Her work centres on understanding how and why corporate actors attempt to influence science, and exploring ways to improve science integrity. Photo: Julian Preece Photography

The first paper that I worked on in this space came from my PhD and is called „The Science for Profit Model“. That was our attempt at mapping the vast literature on how and why corporations attempt to influence science and also attempt to influence how science is used in policy and practice. We focused on eight industries and found that they were attempting to influence science in really similar ways for similar reasons. The industries we looked at were tobacco, alcohol, chemicals and manufacturing, extractive which included copper and gold mining, food and drink, fossil fuels, gambling, and finally pharmaceuticals and medical technologies.

We found that corporations across these diverse industries have sought to influence all aspects of science – what is researched, how research is conducted, disseminated and interpreted, and whether and how it is used in policy and practice. One of the key routes of this influence is through manufacturing trust in industry and in its science. Corporate actors do this in two key ways. Firstly, by portraying themselves as benevolent funders and facilitators of science. Secondly, at other time, almost conversely, by hiding their involvement in science in order to make that science look more credible and legitimate. This is exactly what’s happening at the moment with the tobacco industry. 

How exactly is this happening?

Currently we have the world’s largest tobacco corporation, Philip Morris International talking about its robust and high quality science. It is shouting from the rooftops that it is funding science to help end the tobacco epidemic. But experts are concerned about the veracity and robustness of this science, and concerns have been raised that it might be being used to muddy the water and create confusion about the corporation’s newer products. Plus we know that the tobacco industry has  manipulated science for decades, and so tobacco industry-funded research needs to be viewed with a healthy dose of scepticism.  

”One of the types of science Philip Morris is funding is research into its newer heated tobacco products.” Tess Legg
At the same time as funding its own science, Philip Morris International has also been funding a third party scientific organisation to produce research in the same space. This organisation, Global Action to End Smoking (GAES), known as the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW) until very recently, was launched in 2017, and since then my colleagues and I have been following its scientific outputs and activities. We found that rather than being an independent public health organisation, which is the way it paints itself, it should best be understood as an industry influenced scientific lobby group working to further the interests of Philip Morris and the tobacco industry more broadly. To date it’s had over 400 million U.S. dollars in funding from this massive tobacco corporation. Despite its recent name change from FSFW to GAES it still currently has a vast amount of tobacco industry funds at its disposal, and so as it stands, this rebrand doesn’t seem to go nearly far enough for the organisation to be deemed independent from Big Tobacco.  

What kind of research is Philip Morris funding? Why is this problematic?

One of the types of science Philip Morris is funding is research into its newer heated tobacco products. The jury is still out on the relative risks of these products compared to conventional combustible cigarettes, but it’s concerning that a lot of the research in that space is funded by the manufacturer of that product. That should ring alarm bells, knowing what we do about the industry’s history of manipulating science. 

Through the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (now Global Action to End Smoking), PMI has also funded research into newer tobacco and nicotine products. In our four-year investigation of FSFW’s scientific outputs and activities published in 2023 we noted that FSFW-funded research often presents the tobacco industry’s products as the solution to the tobacco epidemic rather than other evidence-based population-level tobacco control measures. The focus is on market-based solutions, that is, solutions that keep people addicted to the industry’s products. 

The tobacco industry has a long history of influencing science. Can you shed some light on their practices? 

Back in the 1950s, independent research was beginning to show that cigarettes cause cancer. In response, tobacco corporations rallied together and started funding research that would distract and deflect attention from that. This included looking into other possible causes of cancer – nutrition, hormones and so on. They flooded the evidence base with this distracting research, which wasn’t necessarily bad research per se, yet it served the industry’s purpose as it deflected attention from the link between cigarettes and death and disease. It happened again in the 1980s, when independent evidence showed that passive smoking was really dangerous. The tobacco industry mobilised again and began funding research that diverted attention away from smoking as the cause of harm, and on to other issues of “air quality”.

”Industries have attempted to influence every single part of the system of science.” Tess Legg
Sometimes it gets lost that this type of science itself isn’t necessarily inherently “bad”. Science can be methodologically robust, it can be carried out by researchers with integrity who have done their best to make it an unbiased piece of research. And yet that research can still benefit the industry because it deflects or distracts attention from causes of harm that an industry wants to obscure. 

In your research on the Science for Profit model, you also had a look at other industries. Can you compare their strategies with those of the tobacco industry? 

Yes, absolutely. Other industries have done similar things with this idea of distracting or deflecting attention away. One way is through funding research which frames the individual rather than the corporation as the problem. For instance, the alcohol industry likes to talk about – and fund research in to – the ,responsible drinker’ and the gambling industry does the same with the responsible gambler’. These are the same in terms of framing. The normative assumption behind that is that we should drink and that we should gamble, and that if we as individuals don’t know how to do that “responsibly”, then it is us who is to blame. 

Across the eight industries we studied in the Science for Profit Model, the intended outcomes from their involvement in science were the same: to create doubt about the potential harm of industry products or practices, to offer industry-favoured solutions to complex problems, and legitimise the industry’s role in science and policy-making. Ultimately, all of this is intended to weaken policy-making that would affect industry, prevent litigation against industry, and maximise consumption or use of industry products or practices.

In a recent paper you looked at the UK public and their trust in tobacco industry involvement in science. What did you want to find out?

In our previous work we had identified what industries do in attempts to influence science, but we didn’t know how effective those activities really were. So here we wanted to measure the effect of some of these strategies. We looked at three key elements. First of all, how does the UK public trust a tobacco corporation itself as a creator and disseminator of science? Secondly, does the tobacco industry’s use of third party scientific organisations affect the public’s trust in the scientific results that emanate? And thirdly, do individuals‘ political views affect their trust in tobacco industry-funded science? The last point was interesting to us, as evidence is beginning to emerge that people’s worldviews can inform their acceptance – or otherwise – of different types of scientific evidence. 

How did you conduct your study? 

We recruited 1500 participants from the UK public for an online survey and split them into three groups. We wanted to measure their trust in different organisations. So we asked one group about Philip Morris International, a second group about the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World and the third group about Cancer Research UK. We chose the latter as a control group because they are a highly trusted UK based charity that is working on the same stated aims as Philip Morris and the foundation. They’re all saying they’re working to produce research to end smoking.

”This latest study of ours are quite loudly showing that transparency is necessary but not enough.” Tess Legg
We asked our participants how much they would trust these organisations to produce research on tobacco and smoking – we wanted to know how much they would trust the science itself, the scientists, and the organisation to use the science in ways that benefit the public.  For the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, we asked our participants these questions twice. Once, before they were told that it is funded by a tobacco corporation, and once afterwards. This enabled us to see whether there was an effect of obscuring tobacco industry funds through an ostensibly independent third party organisation on the public’s levels of trust. 

Let’s talk about your findings. How much trust does the British public have in these organisations? 

The most trusted of these three organisations was, unsurprisingly, Cancer Research UK. It was trusted at a rate of 5.79 out of seven points on a scale. Philip Morris International came in at 4.66 out of seven. Although this is significantly lower than that of Cancer Research UK, it’s worrying that there is still a high level of trust in this tobacco company among the UK public.

Before our participants understood that it was funded by a tobacco company, the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World was trusted at a rate of 5.04 out of seven. It dropped to 4.77 once they understood the connection. That was a significant effect, but the trust level is still quite high. I find both of these scores worrying, because it suggests that the public may be vulnerable to uncritically accepting the scientific messaging of this group. 

You also looked at possible effects of a person’s worldview. How does that influence the assessment of the tobacco industry’s involvement in science?

For Philip Morris, there was a positive correlation between worldview and trust. We found that the more politically conservative people were, the more likely they were to trust Philip Morris as a funder and communicator of science. With the foundation, we didn’t find quite the same effect. But what we did find was that the more politically conservative a participant was, the smaller the drop in trust was when they found out that the foundation was funded by the tobacco industry. This essentially means that the more right-wing someone was, the less they minded that it was funded by the tobacco industry. 

In science communication, transparency is often seen as an important tool when it comes to revealing influence on research. What do your results mean for this demand? 

My feeling is that the results of this latest study of ours are quite loudly showing that transparency is necessary but not enough. This is because if a harmful industry is transparent about its involvement in science, and the public trusts the science despite knowing who has funded it – perhaps not knowing how the industry has previously used science to obscure the harms it causes – then we possibly have a situation where the wool is being pulled over the eyes of the general public. 

There’s a push now in some places to make science more transparent, especially industry-funded science. Some journals say: As long as the scientists declare who they’re funded by and that they have conflicts of interest, then that is the way to go. Other journals completely ban the tobacco industry’s involvement. For me this second route is the right decision, considering our findings. 

On the one hand, trust in science is seen as an important basis for making well-informed decisions. On the other hand, your study shows how important it is to take a critical approach to research and its results. What does this mean for science communication? 

This is a difficult task for science communication. We need to be in a place where people who read and consume science can trust it. But currently, the mechanisms that we have in place to protect science from the tobacco industry are not working well enough. 

That means we would need better regulations and not only better communication? 

Yes, absolutely. To be clear, I do think transparency efforts are important in the short to medium term. Experts are starting to talk about the need to create a centralized database of the financial interests of all researchers, peer reviewers, editors and so on. Science communicators, journalists and anyone else interested could look someone up and see if they have any financial links that are a conflict of interest. I think that is a promising idea. 

But beyond that, it is really important also to think bigger. In our paper the Science for Profit Model, we found that industries have attempted to influence every single part of the system of science. That means we need solutions that tackle the whole system. This includes creating a stronger firewall against the tobacco industry at all parts of the scientific process, and also considering alternative routes to funding science on industry products and harms.