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Study shows how tobacco firms recruited scientists covertly


Roger Dobson

The tobacco industry recruited and managed an international network of more than 80 scientific and medical experts in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere in a bid to avoid regulations on secondhand smoke, a new report says.

In one year, 1991, the budget for the programme for Europe alone was $3.3m (£1.9m, €2.8m), say the authors of the report (European Journal of Public Health 2006;16;69-77).

The consultants on environmental tobacco smoke, also known as whitecoats, were paid and managed by US lawyers working for the industry, and one of the aims of the programme was to enlist consultants who were prepared to publish research supporting the industry’s position that secondhand smoke was not dangerous and that ventilation provided a solution.

"The objective of the program was to influence policy makers, media and the public by providing, through their consultants … information concerning public workplace regulation, indoor air quality and ventilation standards, and scientific claims regarding secondhand smoke," without this information appearing to have been procured by the tobacco industry, says the report.

The consultants carried out these activities by publishing scientific papers and reports, attending conferences, and lobbying. The authors say that the industry’s role was not disclosed to the public or was minimised or obscured when it was mentioned.

The report cites a Philip Morris action plan for 1989-92 as an example of what the industry hoped consultants would accomplish: "They should be appropriately encouraged to prepare papers, participate in scientific societies with relevant areas of interest, and take active roles in scientific conferences. Where possible, without compromising a scientist’s effectiveness, they should be encouraged to provide statements or testimony for use before government commissions and information to the media."

The authors say the programme began in Europe in 1987, and that by 1989 it included consultants from the United Kingdom, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Finland, and Sweden. It also spread to Asia, and the report says that every member of the organising committee of an international conference on indoor air quality in Bangkok in 1991 was a tobacco industry consultant.

"By 1988 the program included 81 scientists in the major international markets of concern to Philip Morris International. As of early 2004, no document has been located indicating that the program has been terminated," says the report, whose authors, from the University of California, San Francisco, searched tobacco industry documents, including those in the British American Tobacco depository in Guildford, England.

Their study sought to describe how the tobacco industry recruited and managed a secret international network of scientific and medical experts to avoid regulations on secondhand smoke in Europe and Asia.

The report says, "Healthcare professionals around the world should be aware of and denounce such tactics. Failing to do so will only delay even more the adoption of smoke-free environments, contributing to depriving the general population of a clean air environment.

"Public health advocates, as well as policy makers, should be aware of the tobacco industry’s influence and interest in avoiding secondhand smoke regulations as a cornerstone of tobacco control."