New paper details how PMI’s Foundation for a Smokefree World manipulates science; the more things change the more they stay the same

In 2017, Philip Morris International created the Foundation for a Smokefree World, which is widely viewed among health advocates, including the World Health Organization, as the latest industry device to slow down progress in tobacco control by claiming to be “part of the solution.” In particular, FSFW claims to its mission is to “to end smoking in this generation” by promoting the tobacco industry’s harm reduction agenda. Tess Legg, Bryan Clift and Anna Gilmore’s new paper “Document analysis of the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World’s scientific outputs and activities: a case study in contemporary tobacco industry agnogenesis” analyzes FSFW’s activities over the last four years and confirms that it is merely the latest incarnation of longstanding industry efforts to create “independent” bodies to promote its political and commercial interests.

(Angnogenesis is purposefully creating ignorance or doubt, particularly through the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data, usually to promote a commercial or ideological agenda.)

Table 3 in their paper sums up how FSFW uses funding research to accomplish its goals:

As Legg and colleagues note, these are all well-established tobacco industry tactics going back decades.

They write, “FSFW has funded media outlets which disseminate industry-friendly
scientific messages (strategy 15), including Filter Magazine and Vida News, which between them have received or had approved funding of over US$1.3 million since 2018. … and disseminate both FSFW-funded research and critiques of science which may threaten the tobacco industry [citations omitted].

One of these “critiques” that was described in Vida News, an effort by Dr. Brad Rodu, Raymond Niaura, and David Abrams (working with Clive Bates) to force a retraction of our paper “Electronic Cigarette Use and Progression From Experimentation to Established Smoking” published in Pediatrics. Our paper concluded, “Among adolescent cigarette experimenters, using e-cigarettes was positively and independently associated with progression to current established smoking, suggesting that e-cigarettes do not divert from, and may encourage, cigarette smoking in this population,” which Vida described as the “now debunked Gateway theory.” This is the first I have heard of this effort. Pediatrics did not retract the paper and the evidence for the gateway effect, whereby e-cigarettes attract low risk youth to nicotine addiction, some of whom go on to add cigarettes, has only grown.

The same crew was, however, part of a multifaceted campaign that did succeed in getting a paper linking e-cigarettes to heart attacks retracted by the Journal of the American Heart Association. This multifaceted campaign included not only Rodu’s criticism of the paper, but a letter signed by Abrams, Niaura and others and a letter-writing campaign organized by the e-cigarette advocacy group Consumer Advocates for Smokefree Alternatives. Abrams and Niaura both served on the Scientific and Technical Advisory Council for FSFW. As of Feb 22, 2020, FSFW had pulled down the link listing the committee members from its website, but it is available on the Internet Archive

Since then there have been at least two other (unsuccessful) efforts to get my papers retracted and I am aware of efforts to get work by others on e-cigarettes retracted, including an effort to get the first epidemiological study linking e-cigarettes to cancer retracted. I have wondered for a long time if FSFW or some other industry advocate has an organized campaign to get inconvenient science retracted. This is a question worthy of more digging by researchers or the media.

As Tegg and colleagues conclude

FSFW circumvents norms about the unacceptability of collaborating with the tobacco industry, jeopardising the industry denormalisation achieved since the forced closure of the historical industry-funded scientific organisations. The American Journal of Public Health’s invitation to FSFW staff to comment on tobacco regulatory issues, the University of California’s approval of grant funding from FSFW and the Conrad Foundation’s acceptance of FSFW funds for its children’s science competition are unlikely to have occurred had the funding come directly from a tobacco company: equivalent relationships with PMI would not have been deemed normatively appropriate. Such decisions augment PMI’s recent direct attempts to normalise its presence in science and policy spheres.

It is crucial that decision-makers in research, education, academia, policy and practice are aware of the role third-party organisations such as FSFW play in corporate influence on science. Beyond this, our findings indicate that over 70 years since the tobacco industry began to manipulate science, efforts to protect science from tobacco industry interference remain inadequate. The development of more robust systems to better protect scientific integrity is urgently needed. [citations deleted]

Finally, this paper is not only an important contribution for tobacco control, but also anyone concerned with corporate efforts to undermine inconvenient science, including global warming, junk food, chemical pollution, and other areas.

Here is the abstract:

Background: Tobacco corporation Philip Morris International launched the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW), a purportedly independent scientific organisation, in 2017. We aimed to systematically investigate FSFW’s activities and outputs, comparing these with previous industry attempts to influence science, as identified in the recently developed typology of corporate influence on science, the Science for Profit Model (SPM).

Design: We prospectively collected data on FSFW over a 4-year period, 2017-2021, and used document analysis to assess whether FSFW’s activities mirror practices tobacco and other industries have historically used to shape science in their own interests. We used the SPM as an analytical framework, working deductively to search for use of the strategies it identifies, and inductively to search for any additional strategies.

Results: Marked similarities between FSFW’s practices and previous corporate attempts to influence science were observed, including: producing tobacco industry-friendly research and opinion; obscuring industry involvement in science; funding third parties which denigrate science and scientists that may threaten industry profitability; and promoting tobacco industry credibility.

Conclusions: Our paper identifies FSFW as a new vehicle for agnogenesis, indicating that, over 70 years since the tobacco industry began to manipulate science, efforts to protect science from its interference remain inadequate. This, combined with growing evidence that other industries are engaging in similar practices, illustrates the urgent need to develop more robust systems to protect scientific integrity.

The full citation is: Legg T, Clift B, Gilmore AB. Document analysis of the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World’s scientific outputs and activities: a case study in contemporary tobacco industry agnogenesis. Tob Control. 2023 May 3:tc-2022-057667. doi: 10.1136/tc-2022-057667. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 37137700. 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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