Intended for healthcare professionals


US journals veto tobacco funded research

BMJ 1996; 312 doi: (Published 06 January 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;312:11
  1. Terri Rutter

    The American Thoracic Society, the scientific arm of the American Lung Association, has announced that it will no longer publish research funded by tobacco companies in its two scientific journals. The ban was first proposed two years ago by Dr Alfred Munzer, past president of the American Lung Association. The two journals are the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care and the American Journal of Respiratory Cell and Molecular Biology.

    Dr Munzer said: “In my mind, I've always felt that tobacco money is an ill gotten gain. There is only a hair width of difference between the tobacco industry and the drug cartels.” Dr Munzer said that past editorial policy had always been full disclosure of funding in the belief that the peer review process would weed out biased research. But this is no longer considered viable given the American Lung Association's mission to promulgate knowledge about lung disease and to “counter the tobacco industry's influence on children,” he said.

    James Glenn, chairman and president of the Council for Tobacco Research, an organisation that channels funds from tobacco companies to researchers, said that he doubted whether other journals would follow suit. Last year the council distributed $19.5m (pounds sterling13m) to investigators at major research institutes. “We're trying to unravel the disease process influenced by smoking, but we don't direct research, and we don't solicit applications,” said Glenn.

    The National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society, however, refute that claim. Dr Marc Manley, chief of the council's public health applications branch, said: “When there are bodies [in the tobacco industry] who won't admit that smoking causes cancer, it's hard to come to any other conclusion than that they're trying to manipulate science for non-scientific purposes.”

    Steven Dickinson, vice president for public affairs at the American Cancer Society, described research funded by tobacco companies as biased and said: “It doesn't pass the test of our peer review process.” No similar policy, however, is currently planned for the society's three journals.

    In an editorial accompanying the American Thoracic Society's announcement a year ago that it was considering such a proposal, H Tristram Engelhardt Jr, from the Center for Ethics, Medicine and Public Issues at Baylor College of Medicine, questioned how far journals should go to limit a researcher's funding. “How ideologically pure do the members of ATS and ALA have to be? May one smoke and publish?” he wrote.

    Dr Richard Glass, deputy editor of JAMA (the journal of the American Medical Association) said: “We don't agree to consider articles based on their funding source; we accept articles based on their scientific merit.” In an editorial in the 19 July issue of JAMA, however, editors suggested that medical schools and investigators should refuse funding from tobacco companies to avoid seeming to give them credibility.

    “The threshold is higher for scientific validity if we perceive [that the research] would have a commercial purpose,” said Dr Marcia Angell, executive editor of the New England Journal of Medicine. The journal accepts research funded by industry but does require full disclosure of funding sources. It has not considered banning research funded by any particular industry, including tobacco companies. “It's never come up, but it's an interesting question,” said Angell.—TERRI RUTTER, medical writer, Boston