Members of the scientific network used to promote “tobacco harm reduction” often don’t disclose industry ties

The tobacco industry has a long history of supporting scientists, often quietly, to establish narratives that promote its interests.  Now Julia Vassey, Yogi Hendlin, Manali Vora, and Pam Ling have published a formal analysis showing the network of scientists publishing papers on “tobacco harm reduction,” the core ideology used to justify promoting e-cigarettes and many other new tobacco products. 

Their new paper “Influence of Disclosed and Undisclosed Funding Sources in Tobacco Harm Reduction Discourse: A Social Network Analysis” maps the formal connections between authors publishing on “tobacco harm reduction” (THR) through 2016 (map above) and finds that “the e-cigarette network predominantly consisted of authors with pro-THR stance and undisclosed industry-funded sources.”  While they were a minority of all authors writing on THR, authors with industry support exerted stronger influence on the THR scientific discourse than non-industry-supported authors because they were more extensively linked.

While the paper does not discuss the PR implications of the finding, these tight networks are easier to integrate with industry public relations activities designed to amplify their findings.  It is important for other scientists as well as regulators, policy makers and the media to be aware of these linkages when trying to assess the actual level of scientific consensus on issues around THR and the actual foundation beliefs used to justify the need and effectiveness of new tobacco products to actually reduce harm.

As the authors note, the analysis only goes through 2016, the year before Philip Morris created the Foundation for a Smoke Free World to, among other things, support and promote research to justify new tobacco products.  As a result, it is likely that the patterns Vassey and colleagues identified have intensified.

Here is the abstract:

Introduction: Tobacco harm reduction (THR) discourse has been divisive for the tobacco control community, partially because it sometimes aligns public health and tobacco industry interests. Industry funding is contentious as it influences study outcomes, and is not always disclosed in scientific publications. This study examines the role of disclosed and undisclosed industry support on THR publications via social network analysis.

Methods: We reviewed 826 English-language manuscripts (1992-2016) to determine disclosed and undisclosed industry (pharmaceutical, tobacco and e-cigarette) and non-industry (including government) support received by 1,405 authors. We used social network analysis to identify the most influential authors in THR discourse by assessing the number of their collaborators on publications, the frequency of connecting other authors in the network, and tendency to form groups based on the presence of sponsorship disclosures, sources of funding and THR stance.

Results: 284 (20%) out of 1,405 authors were supported by industry. Industry-sponsored authors were more central and influential in the network: with twice as many publications (Median = 4), 1.25 as many collaborators on publications (Median = 5), and higher likelihood of connecting other authors and thus having more influence in the network, compared to non-industry-sponsored authors. E-cigarette industry-sponsored authors had the strongest association with undisclosed industry support.

Conclusions: Authors with industry support exerted stronger influence on the THR scientific discourse than non-industry-supported authors. Journals should continue adhering to strict policies requiring conflicts of interest disclosures. An increase in public health spending on tobacco control research may be necessary to achieve funding parity.

The full citation is: Vassey J, Hendlin YH, Vora M, Ling P. Influence of Disclosed And Undisclosed Funding Sources In Tobacco Harm Reduction Discourse: A Social Network Analysis. Nicotine Tob Res. 2022 Oct 29:ntac250. doi: 10.1093/ntr/ntac250. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 36308511.  It is available here.

Published by Stanton Glantz

Stanton Glantz is a retired Professor of Medicine who served on the University of California San Francisco faculty for 45 years. He conducts research on tobacco and cannabis control and cardiovascular disease/

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