Picture the scene: Martin Mckee and Simon Capewell discover that a controversial piece of research on e-cigarettes, that made headlines around the world, was tainted by a conflict of interest. Imagine their outrage! Imagine their campaign of letters to the Lancet and BMJ, penned with lashings of venom and spite! Now imagine their reaction if it was discovered that this conflict of interest was not declared by the author. Supernova!
There’s a simple reason why they won’t be running for a coffee with Sarah Knapton to wibble about an industry-funded study author hiding their conflicts of interest. It’s because the study in question concerns their mate. The man who runs the charity of which Simon Capewell is a trustee. The study co-author was Robin Ireland, who is the Chief Executive of Pfizer-funded Hearts of Mersey, Director of SanofiAventis-funded anti-vaping pressure group Healthy Stadia, and a political activist who encourages and promotes the national prohibition of vaping in public places.
There are some rules concerning conflicts of interest that authors are expected to adhere to when publishing research in BMC Public Health, over and above the standard reporting of who funded the research (emphases mine):
Are there any non-financial competing interests (political, personal, religious, ideological, academic, intellectual, commercial or any other) to declare in relation to this manuscript? If so, please specify.
Doesn’t look good, does it?
Of course if Capewell & Mckee were concerned with real science, and not simply stirring up the anti-vaping mob and generating controversial headlines for journos, they would be less interested in Mr. Ireland’s COIs and more interested in the actual quality of the research. Because at the end of the day, that’s what matters isn’t it? Sadly, I doubt that they would have dismissed this study with the calm and rational authority of genuine experts in a given field. Thankfully, that is precisely what Carl Philips, Igor Burstyn and Brian Carter did. (It’s well worth a read – Carl’s review begins at page 24).
But scientific integrity isn’t really Public Health’s bag, is it? If you’re vehemently and vocally opposed to vaping and tobacco-harm reduction, real science isn’t going to be much help. Instead, you’re forced to resort to screaming “The Dark Forces of Industry have brainwashed scientists by funding them or something” – which is precisely what the anti-vaping fanatics sought to achieve with the sustained attacks on the PHE report.
The scandal here isn’t about taking pharma cash, or any other ideological or political conflicts of interest that Robin Ireland or anyone else in the anti-vaping camp might have. The purpose of this and my previous blog was to highlight their hypocrisy and lack of shame in using the declared funding of others to smear them. The real scandal is that anyone takes these people seriously, from the media who parrot their propaganda without scrutiny to the politicians who hand them our cash and make policy at their behest.
So much damage can be done by activists and ideologues when you can convince the media and politicians that no matter how good (or in the case of Hughes et al bad) the scientific method and evidence is, it is rendered impotent by conflicts of interest, both real and imagined. It’s high time our political leaders understood this phenomenon, and acted accordingly.