Monday, 2 July 2012

Tobacco control industry: policy-led research newspeak

This one from Michael Siegel's blog. A study purported to investigate whether anti-smoking posters were effective in persuading people not to take up smoking. The findings were negative:
The study clearly states these findings: "The signs did not help recent quitters to stay quit or stop smokers from purchasing cigarettes at the current visit to the store."
But the study concludes:
"A policy requiring tobacco retailers to display graphic health warning signs increased awareness of health risks of smoking and stimulated thoughts about quitting smoking. Additional research aimed at evaluating the effect of tobacco control measures in the retail environment is necessary to provide further rationale for implementing these changes and countering legal challenges from the tobacco industry." [emphasis]
Talk about hiding in plain view. They know the graphic posters don't have the intended effect but are prepared to commission further studies to justify producing and using the posters.

Siegel concludes, 'This is another example of how the anti-smoking movement has recently lost its science base in favor of a pre-ordained agenda'. Recently?

This is not unique. One of my favourite pages is from Cancer Research UK's Tobacco Advisory Group. It details research priorities and I have referred to it many times:
  • The Tobacco Advisory Group (TAG) considers Project Grant applications for policy research and policy advocacy activities in tobacco control.
    TAG particularly funds research and activities that support:
      - Current UK policy priorities, e.g. see the 'Beyond Smoking Kills' report and the Tobacco Control plans of the four UK nations, especially:
  • - Plain packaging of tobacco products
  • - Greater tax and/or anti-smuggling measures in the UK
  • - Monitoring the impact of NHS changes and/or promoting best practice in smoking cessation, mass media campaigns and local tobacco control activities
  • - Health inequalities should be addressed in all projects.
Its terms of reference clearly exclude anyone with an open mind on the issue of tobacco control. The direction of policy is established and the researcher is invited to support it or not expect any funding.

California's Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program similarly has a clear policy agenda, as you would expect from its name. If you look at its research priorities (third menu tab), you will find that the priorities are set and your job as researcher is to find reasons to support it. Environmental Exposure needs: 
Research that will advance policies to reduce environmental exposure to the toxic effects of tobacco smoke, tobacco smoke residue, cigarette butts, and other tobacco products.
Regulatory science:
Research that will expand the scientific basis to inform the regulation of nicotine and tobacco products at the local, state and national levels
Tobacco industry influence:
Research that will advance the ability of communities throughout California to assess and limit the influence of the tobacco industry
and more. 

Absent from any of these research needs is any concept that the science should lead the policy. It's all the wrong way round. Annual reports give an idea of the cost of some of these research grants. 

As part of its regular 2010 funding cycle, The Scientific Advisory Committee recommended, and TRDRP awarded $12.7 million in 46 new grants at California non-profit research institutions. 
As well as the issue of policy determining what is studied and how (rather than an open agenda leading to honest science and well grounded policy) there is an issue of policy being led by wealthy foundations funded from tobacco taxes. The tobacco taxes fund these studies, and this effectively binds researchers into supporting tobacco control, because tobacco control supports them.

All very unsatisfactory and I am grateful to Dr Siegel for reminding me of the issue – but like many I am curious how long it will take him to realise that tobacco control has not recently lost its science base in favour of policy-driven research.

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