How tobacco companies have used science to gain public trust


Philip Morris International (PMI) – considered the largest tobacco company in the world (excluding the Chinese National Tobacco Corporation) is gaining trust in industry-funded science by “posing as a generous supporter and concealing its involvement through third parties,” according to a new peer-reviewed published study.

The research has just appeared in the journal Frontiers in Communication under the title “The UK public’s trust in tobacco industry involvement in science – an experimental survey.”

PMI, which sells its products in more than 180 countries around the world, is the manufacturer of Marlboro cigarettes, its best-selling and most-recognized product.

The paper  was co-authored by researchers in the Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG) at the University of Bath, the University of Colorado and University of Bristol.

“The tobacco industry has used science to create doubt and ignorance (or “agnogenesis”) about the harms of smoking and the efficacy of regulation since the 1950s,” they wrote. “When faced with evidence that smoking causes cancer, tobacco corporations funded their own science to distract attention, and worked with public relations experts to paint themselves as committed participants in the scientific enterprise rather than…self-interested critics.” To further obfuscate the link between cigarettes and health harms, the industry-funded purportedly-independent scientific organizations.

A woman blows cigarette smoke at another woman in the belief that this will help alleviate the effects of tear gas fired by police officers, during a protest to demand fair treatment of their loved ones, outside the Litoral prison in Guayaquil, Ecuador, January 22, 2024. (credit: REUTERS/VICENTE GAIBOR DEL PINO)

While publicly proclaiming itself to have transformed into a transparent organization funding robust science, PMI launched a new “scientific organization” in 2017 called the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW). On May13, FSFW rebranded itself as “Global Action to End Smoking” while at the time trying to sell toxic cigarettes around the world.

Understanding public trust 

The new study aimed at understanding the extent to which the public trusts PMI’s involvement in science, and whether channeling funds through the third-party organization – FSFW – affected levels of trust in its science. A total of 1,580 UK residents were asked to rate their level of trust in: PMI, FSFW, or Cancer Research UK. CRUK, which funds scientists, doctors, and nurses to help beat cancer sooner and provides information on cancer to the public, was chosen as a control group as a highly trusted scientific organization, wholly independent from the tobacco industry.

The researchers found that overall trust in PMI was 4.66 on a scale from one (no trust) to seven (complete trust), compared to 5.79 out of seven in CRUK, indicating moderate trust in PMI’s scientific projects.

OVERALL TRUST for FSFW was 5.04. After participants were informed that FSFW is funded by the tobacco industry, the overall trust rating dropped to 4.77. This suggests that when research is funded through a third-party scientific group such as FSFW, people are more likely to trust the science that it releases.

Dr Tess Legg, a research associate from the University of Bath’s health department and lead author of the paper, said: “This work is important because tobacco companies use their involvement in science as ‘proof’ that they are credible research organizations. They also funnel research funds through third-party companies and historically this has involved attempts to obscure their involvement in the resulting science.”

Until now, there has been no clear understanding of whether – and to what extent – these two strategies work to build trust in the industry and its science, Legg said. “This study is the first in the UK to try to gain quantitative evidence of how effective these tactics are at making people trust the tobacco industry and its science.”

The study’s authors warned against the ongoing acceptance of tobacco- industry funding and its dissemination of scientific findings. They call for increased efforts to educate the public about the subtle yet harmful tactics employed by these industries. “As it stands, FSFW still has an immense amount of money from PMI at its disposal and so the risk of it continuing to further the industry’s interests is high,” Legg continued. “Our findings suggest that more needs to be done by the tobacco control and public health communities to help the UK public understand how underhand the tobacco industry’s attempts to rebrand really are, and to stop scientific front groups from muddying the water by lending the industry an air of credibility.”

While the findings “don’t make particularly happy reading for those of us working to counter the tactics used by the tobacco industry, it’s important to build up a quantitative picture of the effects the strategies used by industries to influence science are having,” Legg declared.

Beyond this, “at a time when the tobacco industry continues its abhorrent attempts to infiltrate science as part of its ‘pseudo-transformation,’ we need to focus efforts on reforming science to ensure it works in the public interest.”

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