PLOS Medicine Associate Editor, Linda Nevin, discusses how a 2014 research article by Selda Ulucanlar and colleagues deconstructed advocacy documents submitted to the UK government by tobacco companies, and catches up with one of the authors for a Q&A.
As researchers, what is our duty to respond when corporate interests distort scientific evidence to influence policy? In a 2014 PLOS Medicine research article, Selda Ulucanlar and colleagues from the UK Centre for Alcohol and Tobacco Studies, University of Bath, used the lens of epistemology to search for truth, misleading arguments, and anything in between in expert testimony submitted to the UK government by British American Tobacco (BAT) and Japan Tobacco Inc (JTI). The testimony was submitted in response to a 15-question government survey issued in April 2012, inviting interested citizens, businesses and organisations to comment on a range of health and economic implications of standardised packaging (SP)—the strict specification of visual and physical pack attributes—of tobacco products. In their study, the authors checked the transnational tobacco companies’ (TTC) reference-based claims against the original sources to ascertain preservation of meaning, and assessed the scientific validity of TTC critiques of the evidence on SP. They found that the TTC reports misrepresented the evidence base in three ways: misquoting, mimicked scientific critique, and evidential landscaping (for explanation of these tactics, see the Editor’s Summary).
Much of the transnational tobacco companies’ (TTC’s) testimony was directed toward a seminal and influential paper in the field: Crawford Moodie and colleagues’ systematic review of 37 behavioural studies which, in sum, indicated that SP reduces the attractiveness and appeal of tobacco, increases the noticeability and effectiveness of health messages, and reduces the ability of manufacturers to mislead consumers about harmfulness to health. In the TTC critique of this review and the studies therein, Ulucanlar and colleagues explained, “Individual studies were examined in depth to determine whether any—on its own—constituted a warrant for SP and, following systematic deconstruction, none was found to be good enough to justify SP.” Based on this finding, the authors make an inspiring distinction between scientist and advocate: “In court, each piece of evidence (i.e., each study and the Moodie review) is treated as a separate piece of evidence and each needs to be undermined and discredited in turn until no evidence remains that could damage one’s client’s case. By contrast, in scientific work, it is essential that the extant research is synthesised and greater confidence in the findings established through the cumulative ‘weight of the evidence’.”