Big Tobacco seems to have a shiny new billion-dollar Trojan horse. The question now: Will medical scientists be savvy enough to avoid a credibility catastrophe by rejecting funding from Tobacco’s wealthy new foundation?
Rita Rubin, a seasoned health care writer, reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association that Philip Morris, a global hawker of tobacco wares, has pledged in the next dozen years to pump $960 million into the Foundation for a Smoke Free World. That group, purportedly, aims to fund research “that advances the field of tobacco harm reduction and reduces the public health burden of smoking-related diseases,” Rubin reported.
But this gambit, often referred to in political parlance as “astroturfing,” has been slammed by respected medical and scientific organizations, including the World Health Organization. They have declared it unacceptable for groups that aim to advance the health and well-being of patients to take “profits from a product responsible for about 1 in every 5 US deaths to fund health research.”
Now, though, the battle has shifted, and Big Tobacco foes are trying to light up universities and medical research institutions, notably public health schools, to ensure they keep to high standards and best practices — and reject studies and work potentially funded by the “smoke free” foundation. Seventeen deans of public health schools (all but one in the United States) have put out tepid statements saying they would do so. But advocates want many more to step up and pledge.
Research funding isn’t an arcane issue just for pointy-heads in ivy-covered research centers. In my practice, I see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, and their struggles to access and determine their best options for safe, effective, affordable, and excellent medical care. Good medicine relies on evidence-based, rigorously researched studies to help determine what works, especially in an increasingly complex world of medical options. Americans spend more than 18 percent of the nation’s GDP, more than $3 trillion on health care, and we need to know what’s effective versus what’s wasteful and how we can create public policies to ensure we get great returns for our every health care dollar.
Industry-supported research, unfortunately, too often becomes odious and unhelpful, manipulated and massaged in overt and covert ways that taints its findings and potential outcomes. The august National Institutes of Health re-learned this fundamental lesson of medicine and science with its embarrassing lapse with an industry-funded $100 million study tilted to the benefits of moderate drinking. Medical historians and other experts by the day seem to unearth sketchy funding and interventions in seemingly respectable studies by monied interests, including Big Sugar meddling in heart and diet research, pro sports fussing with examinations of head injuries, and Big Soda astro-turfing diabetes investigations.
Rubin recounts in her article the “long sordid history” of Big Tobacco’s interventions in medical and scientific research, throwing money and influence around to block or denigrate bona fide work and promoting industry-favorable bunk about smoking’s role in causing cancer, heart and lung conditions, and an array of other health problems.
Reputations are hard to build and easy to lose. It may not be the most fun part of medical science. But leaders and researchers in the field need to protect the public as well as their integrity and their professional standing by asking questions as tough about their prospective funders as their planned lines of study.