Posted on September 27 2016
The Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum, GTNF, meets in Brussels starting tomorrow. The conference is an annual industry summit which attracts cutting edge researchers, innovative health policy makers, and creative entrepreneurs. If the anti-tobacco lobby has its way, however, these participants would just stay home.
“We hope that your participation in the GTNF 2016 programme was just a misunderstanding which will soon be rectified…” said a warning letter sent to participating researchers by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a major anti-smoking advocacy group in the U.S., and the European Network for Smoking and Tobacco Prevention, based in Brussels, Belgium.
The “misunderstanding” that befell the supposedly clueless researchers was the nature of the Forum’s sponsorship. As the letter explains: “We could not help but notice that the event is heavily sponsored directly by the tobacco industry or its front groups.”
As if no one knew? “The annual [Forum] is organized and hosted by Tobacco Reporter magazine, the leading international publication for the industry, and supported by numerous companies in the sector,” the website for the GTNF informs.
The question is why such sponsorship, which creates a platform for exchange of knowledge, necessarily invalidates the science that will be presented at the meeting.
Granted, there would be cause for concern if the sponsors were also charged with vetting the topics or cherry-picking the researchers. But this is not the case.
Jack Henningfield, a respected addictions researcher and a psychopharmacologist, organized two plenary sessions. He works for Pinney Associates, in Bethesda, MD, which consults to companies seeking to market products that treat addiction, pain and other chronic conditions.
As Henningfield describes his involvement in the Forum, “They invited me to put together two public health panels this year and gave me a complete free hand to get them together asking only that nicotine reduction be included among the topics.”
One of Hennigfield’s plenary panels is called “Nicotine reduction strategy – the promise and the peril.” The other is “Advancing public health with new products and regulatory frameworks.” On both panels, Henningfield will moderate presentations by physicians, legal and regulatory experts, a research oncologist, and company directors of product development and scientific affairs.
Henningfield expects and welcomes differences of opinion on many issues from nicotine reduction to harm reduction (which features electronic cigarettes and other vaping devices as well as smokeless tobacco), he says, “because we will have discussion among diverse stakeholders.”
In addition to the plenaries on tobacco harm reduction, there are 12 break-out sessions, half of them are completely or partly devoted to reduced risk products. Other lectures and breakouts address issues of concern to the tobacco market, which will undoubtedly include the vaping industry.
I emphasize terms such as “reduced risk” and “tobacco harm reduction” because these efforts are explicitly aimed at smoking cessation, among the stated goals of the Campaign and the Network.
Yet these groups are trying to intimidate the scientists and researchers from participating. “We believe that your involvement with an industry that has been misleading and deceiving the general public for many decades could be not only detrimental to your reputation but also the notoriety of your affiliated association or institution,” the letter continues, “…some initial presenters have immediately cancelled their participation. Now that the connection is clearly established and brought to your attention, we call on you to do the same and disengage from this event.”
Konstantinos Farsalinos, a cardiologist working as researcher at Onassis Cardiac Surgery Center in Athens, Greece, characterized the letter as just one example of a more pervasive climate of “academic McCarthyism… [We see] criticism unrelated to the scientific content, such as ‘accusing’ scientists and journals for publishing research from tobacco scientists (without even mentioning a single problem in the content of the study) and criminalizing evidence-based opinion and, now, participation to a scientific conference.”
To the contrary, Farsalinos says, the Forum is a “good opportunity to apply pressure to change, to present the ethical dilemmas that we face in dealing with the smoking epidemic.”
Indeed, the Campaign and the Network should attend too. What are they afraid of? “Would you be afraid to have an argument with Big Tobacco and to actually lose it if they are right?” asks Clive Bates, a vocal champion of empirically-based public health. What’s more, their failure to engage is self-defeating. “You would think [the Campaign and the Network] would want to know how the industry sees its future, what is in their labs, what they want from regulators, where you agree and disagree with them?”
Nonetheless, the Campaign and Network seem determined to insulate themselves from outside knowledge. “If you were doing your best to reduce tobacco-related disease [as these organization claim they are] would you really think there are business insights that are not worth having and business actors not worth understanding,” asks Bates, “and that it is better that your own understanding of business is held in a secure impenetrable place in your imagination, safe from the intrusion of reality?”
Anti-tobacco bullies such as the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and the European Network for Smoking and Tobacco Prevention have discredited themselves mightily in this episode. They are incurious and smugly self-assured. They must also feel that their existence is threatened, otherwise why try to censor discussion?
Meanwhile, the defenders of data and a rational debate on tobacco harm reduction will be talking together this week in Brussels. Anyone who shares the cause of open-dialogue with its attendant dissent, collaboration, and ultimate advancement of public health is welcome.