When I checked my email last Friday morning (April 15, 2022), I found a robust email conversation about the fact that the American Journal of Public Health, published by the American Public Health Association, featured an add from Philip Morris International’s Foundation for a Smokefree World soliciting grant proposals (examples above and below).
The FSFW ad ran against the backdrop of a 2020 decision by AJPH’s editor to invite Derek Yach, then president of the FSFW, to publish a commentary criticizing FDA’s then-recent decision to limit the sale of some flavored e-cigarettes.
Both of these actions seemed inconsistent with APHA’s strong record on tobacco control.
For example, AJPH’s very public announcement at its big annual scientific meeting (with more than 12,000 attendees) in New Orleans in November 2014 that APHA would not be returning to New Orleans until New Orleans passed a strong smokefree law materially contributed to getting that law passed.
More to the point, the FSFW ad directly contradicts APHA’s advertising policy, which says, in part:
APHA reserves the right to reject any advertisement or exhibit it deems inaccurate, misleading, prejudicial, intolerant, irresponsible, unethical or which promotes products or services likely to the unhealthy, e.g., tobacco, firearms, alcohol and other hard drugs.
The policy gives the APHA Executive Director the final say over what ads to accept: “The Executive Director of APHA shall make the final decisions on acceptance of any advertisement or exhibit.”
So, I figured that accepting the ad was a mistake and picked up the phone, called APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin and told him about the ad. (He was by then aware of it, having just come out of a meeting with Truth Initiative CEO Robin Koval and research director Donna Vallone, who had also raised the issue.) He said it was obviously a mistake and, an hour or so later emailed me that APHA had pulled the ad and returned the money.
This is another example of how clever PMI was in naming FSFW the Foundation for a Smokefree World. Most people would think FSFW was fighting the tobacco companies, not promoting their harm reduction marketing message.
Indeed, a few years ago UCSF accepted a FSFW grant because the grant-processing bureaucracy didn’t realize that FSFW is part of the tobacco industry. While the University of California does not have a blanket policy against accepting tobacco industry research funding, in 2007 the Regents enacted RE-89 that requires an extra level of review before a campus accepts tobacco industry money. By 2013 RE-89 had ended all tobacco industry grants in the entire 10 campus UC system and since then the UC Office of the President only reports 4 tobacco grants (2 at UCLA and 2 at UCSD, most recently in 2019). The UCSF incident led UC to update definition of “tobacco industry” to include FSFW among “entities whose principal business is the manufacture and sale of tobacco products (including e-cigarettes, or other nicotine delivery products), and agencies that are substantially controlled by or acting on behalf of such entities.” Since then UCSF has not accepted any more FSFW grants.
APHA (and others) would do well to review what advertisers constitute “the tobacco industry” to ensure that their ad agency does not make any future mistakes.
The American Journal of Public Health‘s actions are harder to address, since, short of firing the editor, APHA has little control over its journal’s publication decisions. Editorial independence is an important principle.
But there is no question that the FSFW incident has damaged AJPH‘s reputation.