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Editorials

Journal policy on research funded by the tobacco industry

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f5193 (Published 15 October 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f5193

Re: Journal policy on research funded by the tobacco industry

We are surprised and disappointed by your recent decision not to consider for publication in the BMJ Group journals any scientific studies funded by the tobacco industry. We have concerns on at least four counts:

1. The detrimental effect your decision could have on ensuring that the widest possible range of scientific research is funded and promulgated.
2. The general lack of consideration for the valuable contributions that industry can make to advance scientific research in full compliance both with governmental policies and increasingly stringent academic norms of transparency around the world.
3. The drastic choice of a censorship approach rather than a focus on improving and evolving the journal’s own critically important peer-review process.
4. The choice to isolate one industry from participating equally in the development of scientific knowledge based on prejudice originating from ideology rather than science while continuing to support and favour other industries that also have ideological detractors, as some critics have observed.

The BMJ’s new policy of banning consideration of scientific studies based on their source of funding is particularly disappointing in the light of the BMJ’s historical policy of encouraging robust scientific discourse independent of ideology. Ten years ago the BMJ was “passionately anti-tobacco” but also “passionately pro-debate and pro-science” and further commented that the type of ban recently instituted “would be anti-science” [1]. Allegations of misconduct by the tobacco industry were cited at that time in support of a proposed ban that the BMJ rightly rejected.

It is ironic that the BMJ has now revised its prior view. There is a new commitment to transparency of funding and potential conflicts of interest throughout the scientific world. There is also a renewed interest in tobacco science. In 2009 the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) was given jurisdiction to regulate tobacco products in the US. In order to create an evidence-based regulatory framework, the FDA is investing billions of research dollars to fill the scientific gaps in tobacco regulatory science (e.g. [2]). The FDA also recognises that the regulated industry has a role to play in this emerging community of tobacco regulatory scientists, alongside other stakeholders including the regulator, government and public health.

It has been argued that tobacco harm reduction is potentially the world’s greatest public health opportunity today [3]. To have this kind of impact, those with an interest must find pragmatic ways to work together to find solutions based on sound science. For this research to be disseminated widely, it will be important for the science publishing industry to retain an independent, critical, yet open approach.

In recognition of the critical role industry can play in advancing science, governments around the world are looking to industry to help fund collaborative academic research projects to help improve the competitiveness of their nations (e.g. [4]).

Professor Anne Glover, Chief Science Advisor to president of the European Commission, pointed out recently in a Commentary in the Financial Times [5], that although “it has been research policy for many years” there is also “…a fundamental mistrust of industry and industrial R&D by society – and this mistrust is increasingly hampering our [Europe’s] ability to innovate”. Glover goes on to say that a large part of the problem is the way that industry has behaved when doing business and talking to public. She says that industry must “…engage with its critics and examine its practices”. She stresses the need for transparency on all sides, and points out that although there can be actual or perceived conflicts of interest, there are clear ways of handling these through the peer-review process.

In recent years British American Tobacco has also been evolving its approach to become more transparent in our research efforts, as well as embedding rigorous quality standards. We encourage our scientists to publish (we have published over 100 manuscripts in peer-reviewed journals over the past 5 years), attend conferences and participate in scientific debate. We share scientific conference presentations through the Library of www.bat-science.com. We register every clinical trial in advance, and commit to publishing the results. Every academic who receives funding for fundamental research from BAT today is encouraged to publish any and all results that arise from the project, irrespective of the findings, as well as to acknowledge the funding source.

Should you be interested to learn more about our science, and how our scientists work on tobacco harm reduction, please feel free to come and visit us. Our R&D team in Southampton would be happy to host you and address any questions you may have in an open and transparent fashion, as we do with all who come to visit us.

Science should be judged on its merits as ascertained through peer-review, and good science should be published. The source of funding should be fully and openly disclosed, be it industry, the public health sector, government or any other source. Most journals today require detailed disclosure of any Competing Financial Interests, which we fully support.

We have also noted statements you have made in relation to the peer-review process currently followed at the BMJ. It appears that the BMJ Editors are concerned with the effectiveness of their peer-review system. This is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. Studies approved through peer review have long been the currency of scientific credibility. The reputation of the BMJ is clearly dependent on this capability functioning properly. Applying selective censorship does not aid in addressing fundamental problem, and separates the BMJ from journals of unassailable scientific integrity and relegates it to the class of journals that politicise science.

We respectfully invite you to revisit your decision not to consider for publication any scientific studies funded by the tobacco industry on the basis that such a policy is, in the BMJ’s own words, “anti-science”.

References
1. Smith, R. (2003). Comment from the Editor on Passive smoking. BMJ 327:505.2

2. Announcement of Awards for Tobacco Centers of Regulatory Science (TCORS). http://www.fda.gov/TobaccoProducts/PublicHealthScienceResearch/ucm369005...

3. Sweanor D. et al. (2007).Tobacco harm reduction: how rational public policy could transform a pandemic. Int J Drug Policy doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2006.11.013

4. Wilson, T. February 2012. A Review of Business-University Collaboration.
https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/fil...

5. Glover A. Question of trust depends on openness. Financial Times, 17 October 2013.

Competing interests: I am employed as Chief Scientific Officer at British American Tobacco.

26 November 2013
Christopher J Proctor
Chief Scientific Officer
Group R&D, British American Tobacco
Regents Park Road, Millbrook, Southampton SO15 8TL