Influencing Science: Phillip Morris Changing the Conclusions of Research

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In 2005 researchers from the University of California examined the strategies the tobacco industry used to contest the evidence on the impact of second-hand smoke (SHS) on maternal and child health. They found that industry executives pressured the author of a review funded by the tobacco industry into changing his scientific conclusions.1

A review on sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) was published in 2001,2 and acknowledged funding from Philip Morris (PM). The University of California concluded that tobacco industry documents relating to this review showed the extent of corporate influence on its content and conclusions.

There are adverse impacts on maternal and child health from prenatal and postnatal exposure to tobacco smoke.1 The causal link between Secondhand Smoke (SHS) and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) was first noted by the US Environmental Protection Agency, and both prenatal and postnatal exposure were listed as independent risk factors for SIDS in a 2004 report by the US Surgeon General.1 Nevertheless:

“The tobacco industry has used scientific consultants to attack the evidence that SHS causes disease, most often lung cancer.”1

The leadership of Philip Morris were concerned that public knowledge of the health risks of second-hand would lead to an increase in tobacco regulation, such as creating more smoke-free areas in public. PM executives responded by commissioning “independent” consultants to write review articles for publication in the medical literature.1

According to Tong et al, the first PM-funded article to be published was a literature review by consultant Peter Lee and co-author Allison Thornton. Focussed on smoking and SIDS, this stated that:

“the association between parental smoking and SIDS could have been attributable to failures in the research procedures.(…)” 1

In 1997, PM commissioned another consultant, Frank Sullivan, to write a review of all possible risk factors for SIDS, with co-author Susan Barlow. The first draft concluded, as had the US Surgeon General, that prenatal and postnatal SHS exposure were both independent risk factors for SIDS.1 However:

“After receiving comments and meeting with PM scientific executives, Sullivan changed his original conclusions.”1

Sullivan’s final review concluded that there was an impact for infants whose mothers smoked during pregnancy, but that postnatal effects of SHS were “less well established”.1

According to Tong et. Al:

“Changes in the draft to support this new conclusion included descriptions of Peter Lee’s industry-funded review, a 1999 negative but underpowered study of SIDS risk and urinary cotinine levels, and criticisms of the conclusions of the National Cancer Institute report that SHS was causally associated with SIDS”1

In April 2001 UK journal Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology published the Sullivan review with a disclosure statement:

“that acknowledged financial support from PM but did not acknowledge contributions from PM executives in the preparation of the review. By 2004, the Sullivan SIDS review had been cited at least 19 times in the medical literature.”1

According to the University of California, these findings suggest that accepting tobacco industry funds can disrupt the integrity of the scientific process.1

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  1. abcdefghijklE. K. Tong et. al. Changing conclusions on secondhand smoke in a sudden infant death syndrome review funded by the tobacco industry, Pediatrics, 2005 Mar;115(3):e356-66, accessed April 2012
  2. F. M. Sullivan, S. M. Barlow. Review of risk factors for sudden infant death syndrome, Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology, 2001;15 :144– 200