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How Low Will They Go? Tobacco Control Tries To Shut Down Journal For Defying Them

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Carl V. Phillips Contributor
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Continuing the series about tobacco control’s willingness to harm science, social norms and anything else in pursuit of the movement’s special interest goals, we now have a story of censorship and intimidation. In a recent blog post, Stanton Glantz criticized a paper in the journal Addiction that argued against the gateway claim that vaping causes smoking. Glantz, an anti-smoking and anti-vaping activist at University of California, was presenting genuine – though simplistic – scientific debate, largely based on a letter which is partially accurate in its criticisms.

However, it was not legitimate debate when, in the blog comments, Thomas Eissenberg of Virginia Commonwealth University called for a boycott of Addiction. Glantz immediately endorsed this call to refuse to review for or submit papers to the journal. Eissenberg is – like Glantz – an FDA surrogate, and he has engaged in unethical research on vapers (he was responsible for the vape convention research referenced in a previous article).

In trying to prevent the journal from publishing about tobacco products, Eissenberg cites a letter some tobacco controllers sent to Addiction. The letter accuses the editor-in-chief of having “conflicts of conscience” – an inexpert way of claiming non-financial conflicts of interest – because he believes the evidence that vaping is low-risk. The only suggestion that this “conflict” resulted in malfeasance is that the journal reviewed and published another paper about the health effects of vaping very quickly and efficiently. In addition, the editor would not allow comments in response to that paper to include ad hominem attacks on the authors.

This would be comical if it were not a typical example of tobacco controllers’ toxic and abusive behavior.

In nearly every journal that publishes articles about tobacco products, almost every editor and reviewer are tobacco controllers. They have overwhelming non-financial conflicts of interest: They want excuses to reduce and restrict vaping, smoking and other tobacco product use. Most have overwhelming financial conflict of interest also: Their jobs and grant funding require that they pursue that goal, and thus they are paid to endorse particular interpretations of the evidence. These observations apply to Eissenberg, Glantz and the others involved in this exchange.

If these people had any respect for the concept of conflict of interest, they would at least keep quiet about it. That would be low in itself. But instead they go lower. They not only lie and assert they have no COI, but also deflect by accusing others of being motivated by COI. In addition to being dishonest and misleading, this undermines the whole concept of COI, which is sometimes an important concern.

What is worse, the accusation is not based on the Addiction editor saying “I love vaping!” or being a member of a pro-vaping organization. It is for him stating, “E-cigarettes are about as safe as you can get…. E-cigarettes are probably about as safe as drinking coffee.” This is a scientific assessment that expresses no political preference. It happens to be an accurate, if somewhat glib, interpretation of the evidence. But even if it were wrong, calling a mere reading of the evidence a conflict of interest renders the concept completely meaningless. Basically tobacco controllers have completely perverted the formerly useful concept of COI to mean, “his scientific analysis conflicts with our own ideologically- and financially-motivated assertions.”

The attempt to harm the editor and the journal is just another example of what tobacco control has been doing since the 1990s. They endeavor to damage the careers and otherwise punish anyone who questions their assertions. But this is a particularly stark example because they explicitly cited a scientific conclusion as the only basis for their attack. This is a blatant attempt to restrict not just the actions anyone who questions their politically-motivated claims, but also their thoughts.

Only one similar example from any other field comes to mind: a recent lawsuit by a Stanford green energy guru attacking a scientific paper that exposed flaws in his claims. But his action has been condemned by everyone with any modicum of respectability, including those who are generally sympathetic with his political goals. By contrast, no one in tobacco control ever challenges the toxic behavior of their colleagues. (Fortunately tobacco controllers are unlikely to file lawsuits, knowing that the publicity and discovery would shine unwelcome light on their junk science.)

The Addiction boycott does no real harm. Only producers of junk science are likely to heed the call, and they are invariably incompetent reviewers. Even if every tobacco researcher heeded the call, Addiction would continue to publish (tobacco is just one of its many topic areas) and every tobacco paper would find another home. Public health journals are a dime a dozen.

But the call itself is a clear illustration of just how low tobacco control – including supposedly respectable FDA-funded researchers – will go.

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Carl V. Phillips