Africa: Publish or Perish Factor Driving Bad Science and Nicotine Misinformation

Several countries have embraced and adopted smoke-free and non-combustible nicotine products and they are already enjoying the benefits of their actions. Sweden, Japan, the United Kingdom (UK), and other countries that have gone the combustion-free route, have been recording decreased deaths and morbidities related to smoking combustible tobacco.

In Sweden, smoking levels have declined owing to effective Tobacco Harm Reduction (THR) efforts being implemented by the government. To date, Sweden has reached the World Health Organisation (WHO) target of 5% smokers 15 years ahead of the target and now has one of the lowest cancer death rates in the world, and will very soon be declared smoke-free by the WHO criteria.

Despite the growing scientific evidence showing the Public health benefits alternative nicotine products possess, bad science has been taking precedence, leading to misinformation and disinformation regarding alternative nicotine products. Bad science by definition is a flawed version of good science, with the potential for improvement.

Stacks of academic research papers and public health journals have been published in response to research incentives and the funding associated with anti-nicotine research.

In most instances, the “Publish or perish” factor has been identified as one of the leading factors behind the rising bad science and nicotine misinformation. Publish or Perish is an adage describing the pressure to publish academic work in order to succeed in an academic career.

At the just-ended Global Nicotine Forum (GNF) in Warsaw, Poland, during a panel on Rating the evidence – good and bad Science, Dr. Arielle Selya, a behavioural scientist at Pinney Associates said pressure to publish papers has given rise to bad science and nicotine misinformation.

“I don’t think anybody can reasonably deny any longer that e-cigarettes are effective for smoking cessation. I think there’s a lot of bad science because academics respond to publishing incentives, there’s a pressure to publish a lot and they have to gain funding and comply with the priorities of the funding agencies,” said Dr. Selya.

Apart from the pressure to publish papers, the absence of adequate funding for nicotine products and alternative products has also led to bad science taking precedence in the public health discourse.

Phillip Morris International Vice President Global Scientific Engagement Gizelle Baker said one of the biggest problems in science is funding as there are currently limited options and funding sources.

“And when the funding sources come with an agenda, then you’re driving where the science will go because you can’t get funded for something that would go against the agenda,” said Baker.

She added that bad science was the reason why nicotine misinformation was rampant and, “Science isn’t based on trust…It’s about sharing and having an audience on the other side, that will interrogate the data and come to their conclusions. Where there should be absolutely no trust or maybe even mistrust is when the data isn’t shared and when methods aren’t available. It doesn’t matter what industry or lack of industry you come from if you don’t make your methods and your data available so that they can be interrogated, that’s where misinformation comes from.”

However, bad science has strong financial backing from multinational and global public health organisations, hence the flourishing of nicotine misinformation globally.

Roberto Sussman, Associate Professor, at the National University of Mexico, said scientific papers discrediting nicotine alternatives are yet to provide conclusive evidence to back their anti-nicotine arguments.

“Here’s the question I pose to people who questioned the industry. Why don’t you replicate [these studies]? I am a scientist and I have replicated studies in astrophysics and cosmology, because the results were wrong or questionable, and I replicate them. I showed that they were invalid and an amount of my publications are like this. So I would ask people in tobacco control – if you do not trust the industry, go and replicate them. This is the only way that you could prove your point that research from the industry is deceptive. Otherwise, it’s just rhetoric,” said Prof Sussman.

Tobacco Harm Reduction experts are of the view that academic institutions are creating an unpleasant environment for any tobacco harm Reduction research.

Clive Bates, a Counterfactual consultant said there is a need to create a conducive research environment in medical and public schools for Tobacco Harm reduction to flourish.

“Medical societies, the professional bodies, the activist groups, they’re all creating a cultural environment that is hostile to tobacco harm reduction, and the science to some extent is reflecting that environment and the norms that are being established in that environment. In politics, emotional empathy counts for a great deal. So never feel that you can’t compete in a world of scientific claims because if you’ve been a vaper, you have direct experience, and that counts in a big way in politics,” said Bates.

In Tobacco Harm Reduction, nonreplicable studies are cited more than replicable ones. As a result, bad science has been getting more attention than good science.