LONDON — Their former colleagues and collaborators have turned on them; they are hounded by lobbyists and campaigners; and in some cases, the accusations have led them to question whether their work is helping or harming people.
That’s been the reality faced by scientists, public health experts, and doctors working on e-cigarette research.
Experts have described being ridiculed publicly, bullied by colleagues, and accused of being in the pocket of industry in their quest to investigate the benefits and harms of e-cigarettes. Meanwhile, it’s a boon for industry lobbyists, who can co-opt supportive messages from independent researchers and dismiss negative ones as relying on bad science.
Those on the receiving end — the scientists — are often former tobacco control researchers, who emerged from the vitriolic world of 90s tobacco lobbying when industry tried to inject skepticism into claims that cigarettes were killing people. These experts now find themselves on the frontlines in the debate on e-cigarettes.
Even policymakers have been targeted, with the lead negotiator on Europe’s Tobacco Products Directive, Linda McAvan, revealing that following disturbing messages from an e-cigarette manufacturer, she and her team considered going to the police.
“Ultimately, one of the many potential harms of e-cigarettes could be that it divides the tobacco control community, and they get distracted from fighting for meaningful, evidence-based kind of policy-level changes when it comes to controlling combustible cigarettes,” said Jamie Hartmann-Boyce, an associate professor of evidence-based policy and practice at the University of Oxford. She was also the lead author of the Cochrane review into e-cigarettes which found the strongest evidence yet that vaping works better than traditional nicotine replacement tools to help people stop smoking.
Divide and conquer
When e-cigarettes burst onto the market, scientists began to divide into two camps — those who believed these products would help adult smokers quit and those who thought they could encourage non-smokers to start using vapes and potentially switch to cigarettes.
Into that heady mix came Big Tobacco, an industry that had spent years fine-tuning the art of influence.
While e-cigarettes were first rolled out by independent vape producers, Big Tobacco quickly moved into the space, buying up major brands or developing their own products. Vuse is produced by British American Tobacco; JUUL was, until March, partially owned by Altria (which spun off of Philip Morris International); Imperial Brands now owns blu; and logic was bought by Japan Tobacco International.
In the early days of vaping, Charlotta Holm Pisinger was positive about the potential of e-cigarettes. But the Danish professor of tobacco prevention soon fell into the skeptical camp. Now, Pisinger said that whenever she writes about new tobacco products the industry becomes “very aggressive.”
“They attack me personally. They ridicule me, they accuse me of ignorance of the facts and cast doubt on my professionalism. They write that I’m so blinded by hatred of the industry that I cannot see clearly,” she said.
Pisinger believes e-cigarette lobbying has become more aggressive over the years. Whether that’s linked to the involvement of Big Tobacco is unclear, she said.
It’s not a new modus operandi. In 2011, Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh and chief social policy adviser to the Scottish government, was doing research on tobacco use when she started to receive anonymous phone calls.
Then, a pro-smoking blog wrote “a Letter to Linda” which urged Bauld to leave the country and her employer before her “old university department gets torched, and your old colleagues are strung up from lamp posts.”
However, the attacks from pro-smoking activists and industry are not always as hurtful as the bitterness between former collaborators.
While some academics believe that any engagement with industry is beyond the pale, others have taken a slightly more open approach — not accepting funding from Big Tobacco but also not refusing to attend conferences where industry may be present.
Bauld falls into the latter camp, and for that — alongside her view that e-cigarettes can be an effective smoking cessation tool — she has been criticized and chastised. She’s experienced “bullying behavior” from colleagues because of differences of opinion on e-cigarettes or being perceived to be engaging with industry.
“Relationships were fundamentally damaged by that kind of criticism from colleagues,” she said.
Co-opted by Big Tobacco
Despite the fact that Bauld and many independent experts like her don’t take funding from Big Tobacco and have spent much of their careers working to prevent the harms caused by the industry, their research is used by that same industry to bolster their arguments on e-cigarettes being effective harm reduction tools. That industry then spends millions trying to present that research to policymakers.
The World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control greatly limits the ability of the tobacco industry to influence public health policies towards their products. However, that hasn’t stopped three Big Tobacco firms from being among the top 50 spenders on EU lobbying in 2022, according to Lobby Facts.
Overall, Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco and Japan Tobacco spent an estimated combined €9.3 million on lobbying in the EU according to POLITICO analysis of the EU Transparency Register. British American Tobacco, Philip Morris International and Japan Tobacco each spent the same amount as major companies such as Amazon and Volkswagen.
No independent researcher wants Big Tobacco to co-opt their work in their drive to influence policymakers.
“It’s incredibly uncomfortable and unpleasant,” said Hartmann-Boyce, the lead author of the Cochrane review into e-cigarettes. “It has definitely at times made me question what I’m doing… am I harming people with the research?”
But then she’s reminded about the people in her life who smoke, people who have suffered from that smoking, and that helps to quell her fears, she said.
While the research landscape has become fractured, there’s a clear winner: industry.
“It is a dream scenario for the tobacco industry to have researchers that talk your case, promote your case, and that the research industry is divided,” said Pisinger. By wasting energy fighting each other, research into harmful effects of e-cigarettes or preventing young people from getting hooked gets pushed to the side, she said.
For its part, British American Tobacco (BAT) told POLITICO that difficult conversations on the science need to happen and all players should be able to debate it.
James Murphy, BAT’s director of research and science, said he would love for there to be “a proper scientific debate on science and just leave the politics at the door.” Murphy said that he’s struggled to get his work published in papers and battled to be invited to conferences. “It’s almost like I don’t have a voice to speak with on pure science,” he said.
But Bauld pointed to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which sets out rules on interactions with industry. “It would be pretty much impossible to have a genuine industry-academia collaboration, agreement [or] fruitful discussion.”
What could be possible, she said, is a debate without industry. And that may get more sign-ups.
At the end of the day, “there’s a lot more that unites us than divides us,” said Hartmann-Boyce, of her fellow scientists. “We’re all doing this because we care about human health, and we all want people to stop smoking and have the best available evidence so that people can make informed choices.”
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify that JUUL is no longer partially owned by Altria.