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The Times' war on free speech and freedom of association 

The story so far.

Five weeks ago I attended the annual Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum, a tobacco industry event organised by Tobacco Reporter.

Prior to the event there was an attempt by tobacco control activists in the USA and Brussels to discourage some scientists and researchers from going.

Two weeks after the event The Times published an extraordinary attack on both the event and some of the partipants. I wrote about it here (The smear factor):

The Times has today devoted an entire page to a 'story' in which Cancer Research UK has "condemned scientists who accepted tens of thousands of pounds from tobacco companies to carry out research into e-cigarettes".

Under the pejorative heading 'Academics making a packet' The Times names four people – Karl Fagerstrom, Riccardo Polosa, Clive Bates and David Sweanor – whose speaking roles at GTNF 2016 are highlighted in the main report.

The implication is clear, although only Polosa is credited directly with receiving money from a tobacco company, "a $316,060 grant from Philip Morris in 2003-05 for research on nicotine addiction".

None of the people The Times named are on my Christmas card list (although I have met Polosa and he is very charming). Nevertheless even I could see the injustice of the report, hence my comment:

I hope they will respond to this mean-spirited attack.

Well, as some readers know, they did indeed respond and last week The Times published an apology that you can read here.

Now Carl Phillips has weighed in with an interesting interpretation of the 'apology'. Commenting on the paper's "retraction" of the suggestion that the likes of Clive Bates have accepted money from the tobacco industry, he points out that the real issue is not money or some trivial perks that we all benefit from when we attend a conference, but the right to free speech and free association.

Bates et al were concerned at the alleged damage to their reputations if they were perceived, wrongly, to have accepted payments from the tobacco industry, but why should that be the major issue?

I know that within the media and tobacco control it is, but we should still fight the argument.

One of the things held against Profs Enstrom and Kabat, authors of the biggest ever study into the impact of 'passive' smoking, is that they received funding from Philip Morris.

If I remember their research was originally paid for by tobacco control but that source of funding ceased after several years in mysterious circumstances.

Some have speculated that because the results weren't going the way their former paymasters would have liked (Endstrom and Kabat concluded that the link between environmental tobacco smoke and coronary heart disease and lung cancer may be considerably weaker than is generally believed) funding was withdrawn.

The study was therefore in danger of never seeing the light of day until Philip Morris stepped in to pay for a further year's research that led to the completion of the report. Personally I don't see anything wrong with that. Without that funding years of research would have gone down the drain. 

As an aside, tobacco control activists (including Clive Bates) are very sniffy about groups like Forest because, shock horror, we also accept donations from tobacco companies. But who else will fund a tobacco lobby group - the food and drink industries?

Tobacco companies have every right to support a group that defends people's right to smoke. In my view they would be negligent if they didn't.

It's important however that the group in question is continually active and can be trusted to act responsibly, which is why so many groups have bitten the dust before they are established.

This is subjective, I know, but I think most people can use their common sense when judging what is responsible and what isn't.

For example, railing at 'health fascists' and calling them 'Nazis' or denying heavy smoking poses any health risk to the consumer is, in my view, irresponsible not least because you will be quickly sidelined and ignored by politicians and the mainstream media, thereby destroying your raison d'etre.

The chances of attracting support from the general public will also be minimal.

Anyway, back to Carl Phillips' point about free speech and free association. Carl points out, rightly, that The Times' "apology" is double-edged because while the paper accepts it was "wrong" to imply that Bates et al had "received funding for research into e-cigarettes", it still believes that anyone who accepts tobacco industry funding is "tainted".

This is clearly worthy of further debate but The Times isn't having it. This is a definitive statement, included within an official apology. The question is, did Bates et al approve it? I think we should be told.

Hand on heart, I've met some brilliant scientists who work for the tobacco industry. Today they all seem to work in the field of harm reduction and some are so evangelical on the subject I sometimes wonder if they have forgotten about the millions of consumers who enjoy their companies' core product.

The tobacco industry scientist I knew best retired a few weeks ago. Steve Stotesbury, formerly of Imperial Tobacco, is a man who wears his passions on his sleeve.

Whether it was fighting the fraudulent secondhand smoke scam or, more recently, embracing the e-cigarette revolution with his trademark enthusiasm, Steve was transparently honest.

Why should his work be "tainted" because he chose to work for a tobacco company? Ditto the British American Tobacco scientists in Southampton, the PMI scientists in Lausanne and so on.

I would go further and argue that scientists working for the tobacco industry are doing more for public health (in terms of tackling smoking-related diseases) than many of their counterparts in public health or the pharmaceutical industry.

As Carl rightly notes The Times' retraction didn't tackle this issue because it wasn't the subject of the complaint. It must be addressed, though.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I would like Clive Bates to publicly acknowledge the role he and his fellow tobacco control advocates played in fermenting unreasonable hostility towards smokers that led to a hugely illiberal anti-smoking programme that, ironically, is now being used as a template for the World Health Organisation's war on vaping.

I doubt it will ever happen because tobacco control campaigners rarely look back and never admit their mistakes. Nevertheless I welcome Clive's annual participation in GTNF – Brussels was his fourth successive appearance – just as I welcome the presence of other anti-tobacco campaigners.

My only complaint is when GTNF teeters on the brink of being an anti-tobacco conference, but more about that another time.

What is important – and this is what makes GTNF different to public health conferences – is the willingness of people with different backgrounds and agendas to engage, on some level at least.

Indeed, the right to free speech and free assocation is so fundamental to a free society it's unfortunate the debate about The Times' report should focus exclusively on money.

In the wake of Article 5.3 is clear that attempts are being made to shut down debate between the tobacco industry and tobacco control on any level when even a lunatic should see that engagement is the way forward.

This policy will of course reach its logical conclusion in Delhi this week when the seventh session of the Conference of the Parties (COP7) to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control kicks off.

Not only has the tobacco industry been excluded from participating, anyone associated with tobacco has been given their marching orders, including representatives of governments that part own tobacco companies.

The media too is excluded but I don't see anyone, least of all The Times, complaining, which is odd, don't you think? In contrast GTNF was reasonably transparent yet gets no credit. Extraordinary.

GTNF is of course a tiny event compared to COP7 and many public health events but it's clearly seen as a threat. Why else would tobacco control activists target scientists and researchers before and after GTNF 2016?

The clear aim is to recreate a climate in which any scientist or researcher who has any link with the tobacco industry is "tainted" by the connection, however insignificant.

I say "recreate" because tobacco control activists thought they had won this battle. The idea that the tobacco industry and respected tobacco control professionals might share a platform is therefore a threat to the estabished order.

It's the same reason tobacco controllers (including, ironically, all those who attend GTNF) will never entertain the thought of allowing well-ventilated smoking rooms where smoking bans are already in place, even if the 'risk' to non-smokers is negligible.

Allow smoking rooms and their goal of a 'smokefree' world will be under threat too.

What is astonishing is that The Times, which used to be a respected newspaper, is effectively promoting a war on free speech and freedom of association.

It has gone largely unnoticed because no-one, apart from Carl Phillips, has thought to mention it, least of all the injured parties.

Talking of whom, Clive Bates posted an intriguing tweet the other day. I wonder if anyone is going to be brave enough to follow it up.

I'm tempted but it's not Forest's battle and I'm not sure I want to risk a potential libel action by naming names.

The Times won't follow it up, I'm sure, because they've made their position clear.

The Guardian – which has revelled in The Times' embarrassment – probably won't either because highlighting awkward splits in the tobacco control movement is unlikely to further the tobacco control cause the paper is inextricably wedded to.

It is nevertheless an intriguing story. Perhaps Clive himself should follow it up. I know I would if I (or Forest) was the target of a similar report.

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Reader Comments (7)

Thanks for the shout-out. I will follow the comments and perhaps weigh in again (or people are welcome to pop over to my original post and comment there :-).
I will add one thing now, which is that I also wrote about the pre-conference attempt at intimidation that you mention, and this was another "look below the headlines and it is not so impressive" post:

Sunday, November 6, 2016 at 14:01 | Unregistered CommenterCarl V Phillips

The real defamers? Well, CRUK was very much involved, was it not? Those people have kept their mouths very tightly shut.

Sunday, November 6, 2016 at 14:44 | Unregistered CommenterJunican

Junican, I would be hesitant to point a finger at CRUK without further evidence because we don't know the circumstances under which they were invited to comment or how much they knew about the angle The Times' report was going to take. However perhaps they could issue a statement to clear things up.

Sunday, November 6, 2016 at 15:18 | Unregistered CommenterSimon

The lead sentence of the main article was "Britain’s biggest cancer charity has condemned scientists who accepted tens of thousands of pounds from tobacco companies to carry out research into e-cigarettes." That seems to be pretty strong evidence that indeed CRUK -- or more precisely, probably, one person representing them -- was the ghostwriter behind the article.

But as I suggested in the last paragraph of my post, maybe a little defamation at the hands of the inner circle they used to be part of might be an education for some of these people. Those of us who feel that way should definitely sit on the sidelines rather than get involved on the point.

Sunday, November 6, 2016 at 15:31 | Unregistered CommenterCarl V Phillips

I don't think that's conclusive, Carl. CRUK could have been approached by The Times for a quote for a story the paper intended to run and the quote was so strong it ended up leading the story.

I'm not defending CRUK but I simply don't know.

I do know that I've sometimes been asked to comment on a story about a smoking ban, for example, and my response has actually led the report and dictated the headline, so it can happen.

The situation does however raise questions and I'm surprised no-one is asking CRUK for an explanation. Or perhaps they are but the inquisition is taking place in what used to be called "smoke-filled rooms".

Sunday, November 6, 2016 at 15:52 | Unregistered CommenterSimon

The Times is displaying bias big time now. You only have to look at their very one sided reporting on BREXIT in which they have been very pro REMAIN. Their daily cartonn has almost everyday focused on mocking Boris Johnson and Teresa May. They are very anti smoking. The Times is certainly a pale shadow of the once great newspaper of record.

Sunday, November 6, 2016 at 16:05 | Unregistered CommenterTimothy Goodacre

Surely the Times would have learned to be cautious about all comment and claims from health groups as they included the much lauded 17% Pell reduction in their list of the worst junk stats of 2007..

Sunday, November 6, 2016 at 21:57 | Unregistered CommenterXopher

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