Critics claim that any money taken from the new foundation could constitute an implicit bias
When it was first announced last September, the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World faced heavy criticism, especially for a foundation whose main goal is to eradicate smoking. This was because the primary financier for the foundation was none other than the tobacco giant, Philip Morris International, who pledged a billion dollars over 12 years to jumpstart the organization. The new group is concerned explicitly with funding research into e-cigarettes and precisely what the differences in risk are between smoking and vaping.
Critics immediately claimed that PMI must have ulterior motives and that any respectable researcher ought to refuse money from a foundation set-up by them. With the launch of the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, this year comes the first group of universities following through on this threat. But is it the right move in the fight against tobacco? Or should we support specialized research looking into the differences between vaping and smoking?
First To Blacklist
Late last month, a group of seventeen public health universities across the US and Canada swore to refuse and money for research offered by the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. The foundation claims to be working toward “ending smoking worldwide,” but these universities claim that the organization is simply too closely tied to big tobacco to be viable as a source of funding. Karen Emmons, who is the dean of academic affairs at Harvard University said: “The idea of taking money that’s from the tobacco industry is just antithetical to everything we do.”
Adding to their list of issues are concerns over the long history of Big Tobacco funding research that was poorly conducted to help alter the public perception of the risks of smoking. Other skeptics have pointed to PMI’s own smoke-free device the iQOS as the only reason they’re attempting to fund research into vaping technology and its safety. They claim that any study funded by the FSFW is inherently biased and unable to be trusted. But the CEO of the new foundation, Derek Yach, vehemently disagrees with this notion.
The Foundation For A Smoke-Free World
Derek Yach knows a thing or two about fighting the smoking epidemic. In fact, Mr. Yach was an integral part of the team that got the Global Tobacco Treaty passed in 2003 while working as a cabinet director for the World Health Organization. When it comes to concerns over bias, Mr. Yach has a simple and effective answer. He says that built into the very structure of the foundation is several protections against PMI from having any input on what the foundation studies or publishes. A press release that came alongside the foundation’s announcement said, “The foundation will have an independent research agenda, ownership of its data, freedom to publish, and strict protections against conflict of interest.”
Instead, Mr. Yach preaches cooperation when it can benefit everyone. The bottom line is that Philip Morris International sees the writing on the wall for smoking and has publicly said more than once that they’re planning for continued existence in a world free of traditional cigarettes. For them to reach that goal, they need to be at the forefront of understanding precisely the differences between smoking and vaping long term, and maybe eventually even understanding how to produce the most efficient vapor possible.
This is a desperately needed niche in the research community. To date, there has been very little research into the effects of vaping as opposed to many other questions. This is in part because there has never been a foundation whose sole concern was researching this topic before. If we want to expedite the process of ending smoking, the best way we can do that is support important long-term research looking into the efficacy of vaping. So regardless of how uncomfortable a relationship it may be, it will do the vaping community more good than bad to be willing to work with the FSFW. At least until they prove they cannot be trusted.
While it may seem like strange bedfellows, this is one of the few times where what’s best for the continued existence of big tobacco is also what’s best for the immediate efficacy of vaping. To this day, the biggest problem surrounding vaping as a smoking cessation tool is the poor public understanding of their effects. A poll by Action on Smoking and Health found that only 13% of people believed vaping to be much safer than smoking, while over 26% said that they thought vaping was just as, if not more dangerous than smoking.
There have been large-scale and reputable studies into the effects of vaping that have shed a positive light, such as the 2015 Public Health England study that concluded vaping is at least 95% safer than smoking. But more specialized research into this topic will go a long way toward improving those poor public perception numbers. This is far more important than blacklisting the researchers who accept funding merely because it happened to originate with a big tobacco company, instead of a private donor. The result is the same, a respected and accountable board of professionals decides who has proven they deserve help answering their questions, not a big tobacco company.
Do you think that we should blacklist research conducted using money from FSFW? What would constitute a conflict of interest or bias in your eyes? How can we convince the general public that vaping is the safer alternative if so many public health officials are focused on stopping smoking and vaping together? Let us know what you think in the comments.