Academics with tobacco industry links are not declaring potential conflicts of interest in research

23 May 2023

By Melissa Davey, The Guardian

Exclusive: Study sparks calls for academic journals to consider penalties for inadequate declarations

Researchers with links to tobacco and vaping industries are failing to disclose their potential conflicts of interest in work published in respected academic journals, prompting calls for journals to tighten their policies and consider penalties for inadequate declarations.

Research published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health on Wednesday analysed how often authors who directly or indirectly received funding from the tobacco industry declared this in their research.

Curtin University’s Prof Jonine Jancey, a co-author of the research, said she and her colleagues asked tobacco control experts from around the world to nominate tobacco and vaping researchers they thought potentially had conflicts of interest.

They focused on the 10 most frequently nominated researchers and looked up their published research in the scientific database, Scopus. They also looked up the LinkedIn and academic profiles of those researchers, and drew on information from the University of Bath’s “Tobacco Tactics” database in the UK.

“We went through all of the research papers from the top 10 and their declared conflicts of interest to see if they had been transparent,” Jancey said.

“We identified 553 academic papers between them, and of those more than half had incomplete declarations or no declaration of conflicts of interest. When you think that people who work in the scientific community should be objective, it is incredibly disappointing and concerning.”

She said conflict-of-interest declarations were important because academic papers informed public health practices and government policy, and influenced public discourse around issues such as vaping.

“We really need to be vigilant about this issue because we cannot afford industry tactics to distract us from good science,” Jancey said.

“Tobacco industries are renowned for using front groups – organisations that aim to represent one agenda while serving some other party or interest. In the academic world this is happening with third-party research organisations that are used to disguise funding from the tobacco industry.”

In March, Guardian Australia revealed some organisations and executives with known links to big tobacco and vaping companies failed to declare these affiliations in submissions to the federal government’s consultation on vaping reforms. The reforms are aimed at protecting children from nicotine addiction.

A study led by the NSW Cancer Council and the University of Sydney, published in May, found almost half (48%) of internal tobacco company lobbyists held positions in state, territory or federal government before or after working in the tobacco industry.

Prof Terry Slevin, the CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia, said academic journals need to tighten their policies on conflict-of-interest declarations, and that journalists, governments and political parties must remain sceptical of evidence and arguments presented to them.

“Academic journals may need to consider penalties for researchers who are found to misreport or underreport conflicts of interest,” Slevin said. “That may include retractions, or to refuse to publish future work from those found to inadequately declare their conflicts of interest.”

There is a long history of the tobacco industry lying about its products. In 1994, tobacco industry executives swore in the US Congress that nicotine was not addictive, Slevin said.

“One of their established tactics is to fund and promote research favourable to their commercial interests,” Slevin said.

“When conducting research in an area of commercial interest – something that might influence the thinking about, policy around or sales of products like tobacco or e-cigarettes, it is vitally important that any connection to the industry profiting from sale of those products is declared. That allows those reading the research to assess the extent to which they believe that research is objective and how much weight to place on it.”