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BMJ journal editors will no longer consider research funded by the tobacco industry

Today there was a momentous decision from editors of some key medical journals. Editors of The BMJ, Heart, Thorax, and BMJ Open say they will no longer consider for publication any study that is partly or wholly funded by the tobacco industry.

Writing on bmj.com today, in a hard hitting editorial, they say the new policy is consistent with those of many other journals and demonstrates their commitment to ensuring that - as far as possible - their journals publish honest work that advances knowledge about health and disease.

Critics may argue that publishing such research does not constitute endorsing its findings, but the editors believe this view “ignores the growing body of evidence that biases and research misconduct are often impossible to detect, and that the source of funding can influence the outcomes of studies in invisible ways.”

They argue that, far from advancing knowledge, the tobacco industry “has used research to deliberately produce ignorance and to advance its ultimate goal of selling its deadly products while shoring up its damaged legitimacy.”

They point to extensive research drawing on the tobacco industry’s own internal documents, that shows for decades the industry sought to create both scientific and popular ignorance or “doubt” – at first around the fact that smoking caused lung cancer and later to the harmful effects of secondhand smoke on non-smokers and the true effects of using so called light or reduced tar cigarettes on smokers’ health.

And they acknowledge that journals “unwittingly played a role in producing and sustaining this ignorance.”

Some believe that new tobacco products could represent potential public health gains, and company sponsored research may be the first to identify those gains. But the editors say that, however promising any other products might be, tobacco companies are still in the business of marketing cigarettes.

“The tobacco industry has not changed in any fundamental way, and the cigarette - the single most deadly consumer product ever made - remains widely available and aggressively marketed,” they argue.

In any event, it is a major reversal of editorial position from these journals. They recall that, back in 2003, the editor of the BMJ defended publication of a study with tobacco industry funding saying “The BMJ is passionately antitobacco, but we are also passionately prodebate and proscience. A ban would be antiscience.” But they now believe it is “time to cease supporting the now discredited notion that tobacco industry funded research is just like any other research.”

A problem with this approach is where it will stop. Would they consider bans on publishing work funded by the cosmetic industry for similar reasons? And if not then how can they be certain they are not being unwittingly used as they now believe they have been by the Tobacco Industry?

And what about the food industry. There is currently a major campaign about eating meat from the meat industry. Would these editors consider a ban on publishing any work funded by the meat consortium? It is all a tricky business. 

Putting aside these concerns, they conclude enough is enough: “Refusing to publish research funded by the tobacco industry affirms our fundamental commitment not to allow our journals to be used in the service of an industry that continues to perpetuate the most deadly disease epidemic of our times.”

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