Influencing Science Case Studies

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Tobacco companies have a long history of attempting to influence science to promote their products, protect profits and influence regulation.

  • For example, internal industry documents show that in the 1960s tobacco companies were aware that nicotine was an addictive substance,1 but despite this, in 1994 Brown and Williamson’s CEO testified before the US Congress that nicotine was not addictive.2
  • In the 1970s seven tobacco companies used national manufacturers’ associations to promote controversy around the idea that smoking was harmful to health – a conspiracy named ‘Operation Berkshire’ – which damaged tobacco control efforts around the world.3
  • In the 1980s scientists working for British American Tobacco (BAT) were advised by scientists working for Brown & Williamson “about areas of research such as inhalation that should not be further pursued”.4

The following are a selection of further historical and contemporary examples of tobacco industry attempts to influence science.

For an overview of the strategies tobacco companies employ to influence science visit the Influencing Science landing page. In each section below, we also link directly to the relevant strategies on the landing page, and to other pages with detail on the examples given here.

Examples of the use of third parties

Tobacco companies often disseminate their scientific messages using third parties. For more on this strategy see the landing page section: Influence the reach of science to create an “echo chamber” for industry’s scientific messaging.  See also the general page on Third Party Techniques.

  • Tobacco Industry Research Committee. In the early 1950s, public relations (PR) firm Hill & Knowlton advised tobacco companies on the best way to fight against the emerging evidence of the link between smoking and cancer. Instead of denying the findings of the research, they advised companies to say that more research was needed, thereby creating doubt.5 It was under Hill & Knowlton’s advice that the Tobacco Industry Research Committee was established. Rather than explore the relationship between smoking and cancer this group looked for alternative explanations for the causes of cancer.5
  • Duke University has a history of collaborating with tobacco companies, including receiving funding from Philip Morris to establish the Center for Smoking Cessation Research (CSCR).6 The Director of CSCR (up until 2022),7 Jed E. Rose, sat on the advisory board of Philip Morris’ (US, now Altria) “Smoker Cessation Support Initiative”.89 He also founded the Rose Research Center,10 and has received funding from the Philip Morris International (PMI) funded Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW).11 FSFW is a US based charitable organisation established in 2017 with a grant from PMI, and since then exclusively funded by PMI. One of FSFW’s three main grant themes is Health and Science Research.12 Research by the University of Bath’s Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG) found that the Foundation functions as a scientific lobby group promoting tobacco industry interests.13 See also Foundation for a Smoke-Free World Grantees.

 

 

Examples of concealing involvement in science

Tobacco companies covertly fund science so that research appears to be independent from the industry, whilst serving its aims. For more on this strategy visit landing page section: Influencing the conduct and publication of science.

  • In the late 1980s Philip Morris developed a covert plan named the Whitecoat Project that involved funding apparently independent scientists to “resist and roll back smoking restrictions” and “restore social acceptability of smoking”.17
  • Ghost-writing is the practice of writing books, reports or research credited to another person. Ghost writers have been employed by tobacco companies as a science influencing tactic. For examples and more information see Influencing Science: Ghost Writing.
  • Documents leaked by a Japanese whistleblower in 2024 revealed that Philip Morris Japan had been covertly funding scientists associated with two of Japan’s leading universities and building a network of experts to represent PMJ’s interests with regards to its heated tobacco product (HTP) IQOS. For more information see Influencing Science: PMI’s covert science in Japan
  • In an attempt to counter the influence of corporate funding on scientific publishing, many journals require authors to submit conflict of interest (COI) statements or funding declarations. In some cases, researchers funded by the tobacco industry fail to declare conflicts of interest. This avoids scrutiny or rejection of their papers, and means industry-funded science can be presented as independent. For example, some researchers that receive grants from the PMI funded Foundation for a Smoke-Free World have failed to declare this conflict of interest when publishing tobacco related science.18 This is a practice that has in some cases led to the retraction of papers.1920

Examples of industry influencing the evidence base

Tobacco companies attempt to shape the conclusions of research to be more favourable to the industry. There are several examples of Philip Morris employing such strategies, these can be found on Influencing Science: Philip Morris changing the conclusions of research.

Recently, tobacco companies have been spending large sums on research around newer nicotine and tobacco products. Concerns have been raised about the integrity and robustness of this science.

  • A 2022 Cochrane review in the UK found that all randomised control trials of HTPs were tobacco company funded and that there was a need for independent research to assess the efficacy and safety of the devices.21
  • There is evidence to suggest that the industry’s approach does not guarantee good quality research or prevent the industry from using strategies to influence science. A 2022 systematic review by TCRG found that clinical trials assessing the harms of heated tobacco products (HTPs) “fall short of what is needed to determine whether HTPs are beneficial to public health meaning they may not be a sound basis for tobacco control policy decisions”.22 Of the 40 trials assessed, 29 were tobacco industry affiliated.22 The World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) calls for regulatory decisions on tobacco products and the scientific assessment of tobacco products to be made independent of the tobacco industry.

For more information on these and other similar examples see:

Industry Approaches to Science on Newer Products and Tobacco Company Science Pages

See also Harm Reduction: A Tobacco Solution to a Tobacco Problem?

Examples of tobacco companies discrediting research

Tobacco companies have discredited unfavourable research which threatens their profits. For more information on this topic see the landing page: Manufacture trust in industry and its scientific messaging.

  • In the 1990s, when regulation of second-hand smoke was being discussed, the industry wanted to discredit science that suggested second-hand smoke was a health risk. PR company APCO Associates set up a front group called The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC) in 1994 to discredit the science of second-hand smoke by labelling it as “junk science”. Simultaneously it promoted industry friendly science as “sound science”.23
  • In a 2020 report, Philip Morris International, again referred to “junk science”, this time saying it was being used to “set political agendas” and that “poor-quality science is being used to sway the public against alternatives to cigarettes”.24 This same report describe the dangers of “bad science” referring to issues such as vaccine scepticism and scientific illiteracy among policymakers. In this way PMI aligns tobacco industry scientific interests with reasonable public health concern, to try to build trust and credibility.25
  • In a 2023 report the Institute of Economic Affairs disregarded data published by the UK’s Department of Health the year before in to how much smoking costs the NHS, saying that “The reality is that smokers pay far more in tobacco duty than they cost the state in healthcare, while non-smokers cost the state more, on average, in both healthcare and social security payments”.26 For more on this visit the page Tobacco Industry Interference with Endgame Policies.

Examples of attacks on science and scientists

The tobacco industry also uses intimidation as a tactic to combat unfavourable research.

  • Lawsuits in 2012 against Imperial Tobacco Canada (owned by BAT) revealed that in the 1970s the company made explicit efforts to undermine scientific research that proved smoking causes cancer, with Imperial’s PR representative saying that they “should denounce [the findings] with vigor and try to discredit them as much as possible.”27 For more on this see Influencing Science: Imperial Tobacco Canada.
  • A 2023 TCRG study illustrated the various forms of intimidation experienced by researchers and advocates working in tobacco control – this intimidation included reputational attacks, physical threats and the use of “vexatious” freedom of information requests.28
  • In 2009 and 2011 the University of Stirling received freedom of information (FOI) requests, on behalf of Philip Morris, attempting to access research data that had informed the UK government’s plain packaging legislation and tobacco display ban. For more information visit the FOI: Stirling University page and the Linda Bauld page.

Example of influencing the publication of science

The tobacco industry also uses various methods to try to ensure that the publication process works in its favour. For more on this topic visit How science is conducted and published to skew evidence in industry’s favour.

Preprints are academic findings published without peer review, unlike traditional journal manuscripts. Platforms that publish preprints, such as medRxiv, can be a helpful way of sharing scientific findings that are time sensitive, and therefore grew in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, lack of peer review oversight presents an opportunity for tobacco companies to influence the publication of science by publishing industry friendly research that may be rejected by peer-reviewed journals.29

For example:

  • During the COVID-19 pandemic several pre-print research articles were published that indicated tobacco may be protective against coronavirus. Some of the authors of these articles had historical links to the tobacco industry, and some of their papers in peer-reviewed journals had been retracted due to these conflicts of interest.29
    For more on retractions and preprints see Tobacco Industry involvement in COVID-19 science
  • FSFW and its grantees also use preprint platforms to publish research.13

Examples of involvement in scientific communities, meetings and events

Tobacco companies view scientific conferences and meetings as useful opportunities to influence science, in some cases by manufacturing controversy about scientific issues.30

  • A 2023 TCRG study found that BAT and PMI attended 213 scientific events between 2012 and 2021. Topics covered included Medicine, Biology, Chemistry, Dentistry and Pharmaceutical Science.31
  • In April 2024, PMI was a sponsor of the 50th Panhellenic Medical Conference in Athens,3233 the largest medical conference in Greece, organised by the Athens Medical Society.34
  • During the COVID-19 pandemic tobacco companies saw an opportunity to align with public health messaging through health related corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. For example, in April 2021 PMI co-organised an event on “Science Diplomacy” with Foreign Policy magazine that sought to “energize international cooperation on science and technology innovation to tackle misinformation” relating to the pandemic, despite PMI’s history of influencing science for profit.35 For more on tobacco company activities during the pandemic see COVID-19.

Tobacco company science pages

The ‘Big Four’ tobacco companies each present their scientific outputs and research agendas on science websites. Each site is representative of the company’s brand and the sort of scientific image it wants to present to consumers.

  • British American Tobacco presents its science via its BAT Science website, which leads with the slogan “A Better Tomorrow”. The site highlights BAT’s research focus in to what it calls “New Category” products as well as its research and commercial interests in vaccine development via its subsidiary Kentucky Bioprocessing.36 During the COVID-19 pandemic Kentucky Bioprocessing began developing a COVID-19 vaccine. For more on this visit Tobacco Company Investments in Pharmaceutical & NRT Products. BAT’s website also features a library of scientific publications.
  • Imperial Brands presents its scientific outputs via its Imperial Brands Science It highlights its “Next Generation products” and the product safety testing it conducts using its Scientific Assessment Framework.37 The site also features a research archive.
  • Japan Tobacco International (JTI) presents its science via the JT Science website, where it highlights its mission to “inform, educate and collaborate with all those interested in learning about the science behind Reduced-Risk Products (RRP)”. Like Imperial brands, JTI presents a six-step safety assessment for its newer nicotine products.38 It also has a section on the science of nicotine and a resource hub archive of JTI research.Alongside its main tobacco business Japan Tobacco Inc., parent company of JTI, has a large pharmaceutical division established in 1987,39 which researches, develops, manufactures and distributes drugs for a range of diseases including heart disease and cancer.40
  • Philip Morris International presents its scientific agenda via the PMI Science The majority of the research it presents is focussed on its heated tobacco product IQOS. The site features a letter from Chief Life Sciences Officer Badrul Chowdhury describing how the company has “spent years disrupting its core cigarette business by developing, assessing and marketing non-combustible alternatives to cigarettes.”.41 The site also features a library of PMI publications.

For more information on this topic visit Industry Approaches to Science on Newer Products.

Tobacco Tactics Resources

See the list of pages in the category Influencing Science

TCRG Research

Document analysis of the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World’s scientific outputs and activities: a case study in contemporary tobacco industry agnogenesis, T. Legg, B.  Clift, A.B. Gilmore, Tobacco Control, Published Online First: 03 May 2023. doi: 10.1136/tc-2022-057667

The Science for Profit Model—How and why corporations influence science and the use of science in policy and practice, T. Legg, J. Hatchard and A.B. Gilmore, Plos One, 2021, 16(6):e0253272, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0253272

Paying lip service to publication ethics: scientific publishing practices and the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, T. Legg, M. Legendre, A. B. Gilmore, Tobacco Control 2021;30:e65-e72, accessed October 2023

“They try to suppress us, but we should be louder”: a qualitative exploration of intimidation in tobacco control, B.K. Matthes, R. Alebshehy, A.B. Gilmore, Globalization & Health, 19:88,  2023, doi: 10.1186/s12992-023-00991-0.

Seeking to be seen as legitimate members of the scientific community? An analysis of British American Tobacco and Philip Morris International’s involvement in scientific events, B. K. Matthes, A. Fabbri, S. Dance, L. Laurence, K. Silver, A. B. Gilmore. Tobacco Control Published Online First: 03 February 2023. doi: 10.1136/tc-2022-057809

The perils of preprints, M. C. van Schalkwyk, T. R. Hird, N. Maani, M. Petticrew, A. B. Gilmore,  BMJ, 2020; doi:10.1136/bmj.m3111

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References

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  9. Altria, Supporting Cessation, Altria website, accessed 13 February 2024
  10. Rose Research Center, Who Are We?, accessed May 2020
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