CTFK threatens researchers, but you should not really care

by Carl V Phillips

My tobacco control amusement for the week (other than my nomination to TPSAC) comes from a letter sent from the notorious Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids (CTFK) and the obscure ENSP (which is apparently not actually a phishing site for people mistyping their sports news search, but rather a pliable recruit that gave CTFK an excuse to hassle Europeans too), to Christopher Russel and an unknown number of others. Christopher posted it here. The letter seeks to intimidate the recipients from attending the GTNF conference this month.

GTNF (historically “global tobacco networking forum”, now “global tobacco and nicotine forum” and presumably soon to be “global talking about nicotine forum”) is the leading tobacco industry conference, and is probably the single most educational conference I have ever been to, outside of highly specialized focused technical meetings. I have attended and presented a half dozen times (not this year, though). The letter’s message was, basically, “as an independent scholar, you should not attend this meeting because (subtext) it would be a real shame if bad things were to happen to you.”

The amusement begins with more than half the text of the letter being devoted to making the case that industry is involved with this conference. Seriously? Was this written by some form-letter bot? I really don’t think you need to go to that trouble to make the case that the conference that is (accurately) advertised as “the world’s foremost ideas and information exchange for the tobacco and nicotine industries” has a rather large industry component. It would probably have been sufficient to quote that tagline.

The letter further compounds this with:

When informed about the direct links between the tobacco industry and this particular event, some initial presenters have immediately cancelled their participation. Now that the connection is clearly established and brought to your attention, we call on you to do the same and disengage from this event.

That is just hilarious. First, I seriously doubt that anyone cancelled their participation. Presumably that is a whole-cloth lie. But even more so, are CTFK really saying that some of the people in their orbit are so clueless that they had to be informed that the industry conference they had agreed to present at included industry?

Ok, fine. I often read tobacco controller tweets, so I will grant it might be true that some are indeed that clueless. But why would CTFK want to advertise that fact? (And it is probably still a lie that anyone quite that clueless was on the GTNF agenda in the first place.)

The next level of amusement is more substantive. It is the fact that these people think that avoiding sitting in on a meeting somehow does them good. Set aside their desire to intimidate independent researchers who might disagree with their extremist agenda. They seem to really believe that boycotting a chance to learn what their “enemy” is saying is a good idea. The meeting is open for anyone to attend (unlike their own secret societies), but they avoid it. The mind boggles at how clueless they have to be — not just one clueless individual, but their collective “wisdom” — to think this is wise.

The last level of amusement is amusement in the sense of “y’gotta laugh at this, because if you don’t….” These come from the reactions that treat this as some big thing. This diminishes the real issues and is rather insulting to those who have endured actual attacks. Granted sending a (cowardly unsigned) letter to a junior researcher is appalling behavior, but is mere free speech. Christopher presumably did not think it was worth worrying about (though I did not talk to him to confirm this); his subdued response seems to imply “Ha ha ha. Fuck off.” Even a junior non-ANTZ e-cigarettes researcher is pretty safe in the UK, thanks to the local tobacco controllers’ embrace of e-cigarettes as a medical intervention (even though, as I and others have attempted to warn, they are not actually consumers’ friends). The drama that some commentators have tried to gin up about this letter is, um, unfortunate.

The reason for that is the same as the reason that we are only just starting to have an inkling of “diverse” opinions from academics about tobacco products (expanding from being all 1s and 2s, on a scale of 1-to-1o representing the diversity of actual opinions, to a handful of 3s and maybe even a 5 or two): the substantive and effective intimidation of the past few decades. Silly letters get sent when someone does not have the money and power to do more. CTFK (and their non-entity little friend) apparently do not have the ear of Christopher’s university dean or president or they would not have (reasonably politely) asked him to change his decision. By contrast, a few years ago — and still today in the USA, Canada, and elsewhere — these actors would try to intimidate those who could use force to make Christopher change his decision. University medical and public health units in the USA are effectively financial subsidiaries of the government, specifically the NIH, which is extremist in its anti-tobacco positions. The non-industry private funders in the sector are even worse. They will not only will not fund any research on tobacco that departs from the party line, but the unofficial communication from the government to university administrators that they will not tolerate anyone else doing it either.

Those of us who tried to resist this in the 1990s and 2000s include Jim Enstrom (who was eventually fired), me (who accepted a generous settlement payment from my university in lieu of litigating over the systematic harassment I had faced — hooray for unions! — and got out), and Brad Rodu (who still hangs in there despite… well, that is his story to tell if he chooses to). There were also some Swedes who were pretty vocal, but they slowly went dark as things got worse there (I don’t know the deep stories there). Beyond that, there was a handful of party-line tobacco researchers who seemed to have been granted permission to venture an opinion in the 3 range and serve as stylized sparring partners for the extremists. Even most of them have returned to a subservient role.

So you can perhaps see why I am rather more amused than outraged about the latest teapot tempest.

What is outrageous are the perpetrators and facilitators of the real crimes whining about getting slightly scorched by the flames they helped create. At the general level this includes those (non-junior) UK academics who went pro-ecig and then complained about the junk science and sniping employed against them. This includes several who still employ that same tobacco control junk science and sniping when it comes to anything other than e-cigarettes. At the specific level it includes Jack Henningfield, who I am told by a reliable source, received one of those CTFK letters and whined about the persecution. Um, yeah. Last year at GTNF (when he effectively worked for NJOY), Henningfield was a featured speaker and presented a biographical story whose revisionism would have impressed Donald Trump, about his contributions to THR. This gag-worthy performance might well have convinced those who knew nothing of the fact that he was one of the leading CTFK-allied anti-THR activists of the 2000s (when he effectively worked for Glaxo).

And then there is Michael Siegel, who recently wrote of his “ostracism” (from being a leading member of the censorship and ostracism club) as a result of calling out one particular bit of particularly bad tobacco control junk science. But, sorry, being thrown off of a couple of email groups and having his “hero”, Stanton Glantz, say a few bad things about him — thereby forcing him into the hardscrabble life of a fully-funded professor who can play both sides of the tobacco control game without being answerable for the accuracy of anything to anyone — hardly makes him a tragic figure. (He could probably make a better case that it hurt his future government funding prospects, but does not argue that position as far as I have seen.) It was genuinely heroic of him to dare question the orthodoxy at the time, so I do not mean to take away credit for that, and the inconvenience to him dwarfed anything Christopher has suffered from receiving this letter. Still, he was merely inconvenienced and remains a seriously flawed version of a hero: He still actively contributes to the same attempted censorship problem represented by the CTFK letter, most recently by piling on an ad hominem attack on Rodu that was launched by his cowardly hero, Glantz, after Rodu debunked some of Glantz’s recent junk science.

So there is a bit of “so shall you reap” schadenfreude in all this. But only a bit, because people like Christopher, who to my knowledge never in his life did anything to help sow this, are targeted by the weak attacks. The same goes for those of us who have been subject to the real attacks. Even more important, countless other potentially honest researchers either avoid tobacco research entirely or conform to the extremist party line because that is where the money is.

If you want to get mad about something, definitely do so. But make sure it is the right thing: the 99% of available research funds that have a political litmus test attached; the use of those and other funds to blackmail institutions into censoring other researchers; the strong-arm censoring of free press by the FDA; the exclusion of the press (to say nothing of consumers) from WHO proceedings; and the serious attacks on the careers of any dissenters. A few letters from CTFK, to say nothing of obnoxious tweets and silly editorials, are nothing compared to those. Indeed, they are pretty much just nothing. They are hardly even worth mentioning except for their humor value. If I thought the ANTZ were more clever than they seem to be, I would conclude that they are doing this specifically for the purpose of distracting from their real crimes against free speech and free association.

[Update: I am going to walk back the caveat in that last sentence a bit. The day after I posted this saw even more breathless concern about those letters. Tobacco controllers may be terrible at understanding science, ethics, the human condition, etc. (not just liars about these — though that too — but truly clueless), but they are master manipulators. Indeed, the latter is basically their entire job description, so why would we expect them to be good at anything else? So when you see them pull a Trump-level act of misdirection, perhaps it is unwise to assume it was an accident.

While that comparison might seem like the 2016 update to Godwin, it is actually a pretty tight analogy. The Trump campaign has been amazingly adroit at saying or doing something that is photogenic, simple, and seemingly horrifyingly stupid every time it wants to distract from a real news item that might actually sway some voters. The example from the past few days is the Gennifer Flowers stunt, which effectively negated any news coverage of the latest evidence that further suggests Trump is beholden to the Russian oligarchy. Most of these moves have been brilliantly pitched at a level that arouses righteous screaming among those who would never support Trump anyway, but seem like silly yawns to the undecided.

The analogy is not perfect because of timing (the Trump moves are all about the “news cycle” forgetting about anything that was not revealed in the last day). But it seems like a safe bet that if the advice herein is ignored (which itself seems like a safe bet), the go-to example of “those evil tobacco controllers silencing science and stifling discussion” for the next year or three will be this letter. The response from anyone who does not already agree with the sentiment will, quite reasonably, be, “this was an attempt at persuasion; perhaps it was rude and inappropriate, but it was just words; in addition, everyone who got those letters went ahead and attended the conference, so how how much could those tactics really matter?” By contrast, many of those same “undecided voters” might well be appalled by tobacco control’s serious and successful methods to silence science and stifle discussion, just as undecided voters might be influenced by the information about Russia — if only someone took the time to present it rather than focusing on spectacle.]

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13 responses to “CTFK threatens researchers, but you should not really care

  1. It seems to me that anyone or organisation who wants to finance research which might possibly contradict Tobacco Control et al ought to approach researchers who are nearing retirement.

    • There have been a cases few like that. Phil Cole, one of the great modern epidemiologists, collaborated on some of the seminal papers with Brad in the later years of his career. Many of the researchers I know who BAT funded were at or near retirement.

      Then there are the cases where a lifelong ANTZ backs off on some things at retirement. I would be rather more impressed by those if they came with an apology.

  2. Pingback: CTFK threatens researchers, but you should not really care – Vaping With Tina

  3. There is no doubt that we are living in a new era of McCarthyism…on steroids.

  4. Carl:

    I disagree, and thing we really should care — not so much about CTFK, but about the issue of meeting with and listening to what industry representatives have to say. Without formal recognition of the value of such dialogue, there will be little or no hope of FDA, CDC or others in at least the American tobacco control community considering incorporation of a tobacco harm reduction component to current tobacco control programming.

    Joel

    Joel L. Nitzkin, MD, MPH, DPA Principal Consultant, JLN, MD Associates, LLC Senior Fellow for Tobacco Policy, R Street Institute 4939 Chestnut Street New Orleans, LA 70115-2941 Land Line Phone 504 899 7893 Cell Phone 504 606 7043 Fax 504 899 7557 Skypename jlnitzkin jlnitzkin@gmail.com

    On Sat, Sep 24, 2016 at 1:57 PM, Anti-THR Lies and related topics wrote:

    > Carl V Phillips posted: “by Carl V Phillips My tobacco control amusement > for the week (other than my nomination to TPSAC) comes from a letter sent > from from the notorious Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids (CTFK) and the > obscure ENSP (which is apparently not actually a phishing site” >

    • I think you are missing what I said should not be cared about. That being the round of letters that were recently sent. The point is that they have no teeth — in terms of discouraging freedom of inquiry/speech and freedom of association — whereas much else that is done does have teeth. Worrying about these letters is a distraction, perhaps intentional.

      The point you raise about dialogue between the extremists and whoever is orthogonal to all of that. That could happen even in a world with censorship and abuse of independent researchers. Merely ending the censorship and abuse would not in any way create that dialogue.

  5. The academic appearance and clothing of “official” (FTCT based) tobacco “science” allows for an effective disguise of its McCarthyism, which likely is a consequence of the inadequacy of its scientific shallowness to justify vast resources it gets from the complex network of vested interests: MSA and money from sin taxes and “contributions” from pharma money. Ideology should also play an important part, as well as the urge for self-preservation of all public bureaucracies, including satellite charities.

    All scientific activity is human and is thus somehow tied vested interests, but In sciences that are more “normal” (ie less politicized) than tobacco science it is possible to conduct real research with relative independence and objectivity. Fundamental Physics is perhaps the best example: millions of public money have been spent on the detection of the Higgs boson (the so-called “god particle”) and gravitational waves, but public investment was never conditioned to a favorable result in some “desired” line. Sometimes experimental or observational errors have happened: the false positive in indirect detection of gravitational waves through the BICEPS team 2 years ago and superluminal neutrinos 5 years ago were readily acknowledged by the community.

    Nothing of the sort happens in official tobacco science within established academic institutions. As you say, public health research is extremely dependent on funding by the NIH, which on all tobacco related issues is very strictly focused on research upholding the FTCT guidelines. Brad Rodu (whose research is affected by this) provides in his blog interesting detail on how grants are distributed. As Rodu argues, massive evidence supporting the health benefits of smokeless tobacco is regularly marginalized, while contrary results that are either false or methodologically unsound are clamored as decisive results that “close” the debate. This type of attitude would be unthinkable in Fundamental Physics, but then the latter (fortunately) lacks the amount of toxic mixture of vested interests that plague tobacco science. No wonder we see McCarthyism in the latter and not in the former.

    All serious research in fundamental physics takes place within official institutions by officially recognized physicists publishing in official peer reviewed journals, with crackpots figures contesting this research and acting “unofficially” in social media. In tobacco related public health science there seems to be an approximated inverted phenomenon: the methodological crackpot-like figures are official physicians running the official institutions (inside). The latter institutions produce mostly poor quality work and even utter junk science, while the few professionals producing and backing self-consistent critical evidence are forced outside the institutions, ending up writing “unofficially” in web pages, blogs and social media. Of course, there is also a lot of poor quality (even anti-science) opinion criticizing tobacco science in the social media.

    This inverted phenomenon creates a a problem of appearance that makes it hard to explain the public (including politicians and scientists in other fields) the ongoing rot taking place in official tobacco science. To the external observer official institutions of public health tobacco science “look like” official institutions of science in general. The official web sites of Steven Weinberg (University of Texas at Austin, 1979 Nobel prize winner in physics) and Stanton Glantz look very similar. So, external observers not familiar with the issues tend to assume that Glantz is as much of a bona fide solid legitimate scientific authority as Weinberg is. However, this perception is extremely deceiving: Weinberg is a real scientific authority under any evaluation criterion (and his work has always been subjected to strict scrutiny), while Glantz is simply an administrative powerful figure producing previously conceived results that fit a narrow ideological agenda tied to vested interests (and is not accountable to anyone).

    Explaining the deception of official tobacco science is extremely difficult. Most of the public is likely to compare “unofficial” social media critics of Glantz (some of whom are likely to be doing the real science) to “unofficial” social media critics of Weinberg (who are likely to be uninformed and a large proportion being real crackpots). Most listening to the explanation think you are taking conspiracy, as most listeners will fall for the appearances and few will bother to look into the detail to verify facts (and here, really, the devil is in the details).

  6. All serious scientific research (as I can tell by being an active physicist and using physics as an example) takes place within official institutions by officially recognized physicists, all publishing in official peer reviewed journals, with a number of uninformed lay people and crackpot figures contesting this research and acting “unofficially” in social media. In tobacco related public health science there seems to be an approximated inverted phenomenon: the methodological crackpot-like figures are official physicians running the official institutions (inside). The latter institutions produce mostly poor quality work and even utter junk science, while the few professionals producing and backing self-consistent critical evidence are forced outside the institutions, ending up writing “unofficially” in web pages, blogs and social media. Of course, there is also a lot of poor quality (even anti-science) opinion criticizing tobacco science in the social media.

    This inverted phenomenon creates a a problem of appearance that makes it hard to explain to the public (including politicians and scientists in other fields) the ongoing rot taking place in official tobacco science. To the external observer official institutions of public health tobacco science “look like” official institutions of science in general. The official web sites of (for example) Steven Weinberg (University of Texas at Austin, 1979 Nobel prize winner in physics) and Stanton Glantz look very similar. So, external observers not familiar with the issues tend to assume that Glantz is as much of a bona fide solid legitimate scientific authority as Weinberg is. However, this perception is extremely deceiving: Weinberg is a real scientific authority under any evaluation criterion (and his work has always been subjected to strict scrutiny), while Glantz is simply an administrative powerful figure producing poor quality previously conceived results that fit a narrow ideological agenda tied to vested interests (and is not accountable to anyone).

    Explaining the deception of official tobacco science is extremely difficult. Most of the public is likely to compare “unofficial” social media critics of Glantz (some of whom are likely to be doing the real science) to “unofficial” social media critics of Weinberg (who are likely to be uninformed and a large proportion being real crackpots). Most listening to the explanation think you are taking conspiracy, as most listeners will fall for the appearance and few will bother to look into the detail to verify facts (and here, really, the devil is in the details).

    • Yes, that seems to be an (not THE) essential problem.

      Stepping back a minute for a deeper dive into what you said: An accepted truism in recent history and philosophy of science is the physics is weird. Not substantively (though that is true too), but as an exemplar of how science works. So it can sometimes confuse rather than enlighten to use it as a starting point for analyzing other sciences, even though it is taught to schoolkids as the exemplar of all science. Biology is probably the better example.

      So with that in mind, consider economics. Much of the best thinking in economics today is in blogs and scholarly articles in forums other than academic journals. A lot of that is backed (already or soon thereafter) by circulating papers, but not all of it. Those papers mostly end up in a journal — a year or two later. And when they do appear, they are free-standing mathsturbation exercises, not the give and take of modern media. (WTF? My spell checker does not object to “mathsturbation”???) So someone who was to try to understand a debate in economics by only reading journals would not be in much better shape than someone trying to understand THR and related topics by only reading journals. Of course, there is still the contrast you note that someone reading the econ journals would not be actively misled by them — merely out of touch. And the reality of modern physics discussion is not quite so different as you imply. Someone who read only journals and ignored arXiv etc. would at least be many months behind the curve.

      I have written at length about how and why journals in the health sciences (in general — tobacco “research” is just one symptom of it) are a terrible source of information for non-experts. The huge problem is that unlike in physics (where non-experts cannot read the journals — and generally don’t care, quite reasonably) or economics (where interested non-experts cannot help but be exposed to the live human-level discussions), the non-experts read journals (or abstracts anyway) and press reports that are uncritical and insight-free summaries thereof.

      Circling back to how your observations relate to this post, there is some hope that some “undecided” observers might be persuaded to not fall into this trap if they knew just how effectively the academic discourse was and is restricted by money and material threats. I am not saying it would cause a sea-change, but it would have some impact. By contrast, a bunch of letters saying “please reconsider your plan to go to an evil tobacco industry conference” which were all ignored with impunity is not going to convince anyone that the whole literature is suspect. Indeed, many who might be persuaded by knowing the real crimes might be of the opinion that there is nothing wrong with making such a request. Certainly they would not think that its existence is a reason to doubt the journal literature.

      • “And the reality of modern physics discussion is not quite so different as you imply. Someone who read only journals and ignored arXiv etc. would at least be many months behind the curve.”

        You are right. I oversimplified the situation in physics for the sake of succinctness. We do submit fresh research into electronic pre-print sites like the arXiv’s way before the articles appear in journals (on line and printed) after the (necessarily) slower peer review process (the arXiv site is also subjected to strong moderation to prevent crackpot infiltration). There are also very valuable and professional moderated physics blogs and discussion web sites where ongoing fresh research is discussed and criticized. However, almost all research that has passed through arXiv’s and social media ends up on the peer review process before it is published in journals. As you say, most lay people are excluded and get information through press release sor science diffusion media.

        The key point is that in Physics (and I would guess also Mathematics, and Biology) you can identify real research (even if a lot of it may not be good quality) with various processes of insider “official” activity, while practically all deliberate disinformation (not errors nor sloppy but legitimate research) comes from the outside. In public health this seems to be upside down: deliberate disinformation often originates inside institutions and real research often comes from outside. This is very hard to believe to most people.

        “there is some hope that some “undecided” observers might be persuaded to not fall into this trap if they knew just how effectively the academic discourse was and is restricted by money and material threats. I am not saying it would cause a sea-change, but it would have some impact. ”

        Most colleagues I have talked to understand very well the nasty side effects of money and politics on public health science (and the connection to pharma money and lobbying). Yet most of them still fall into the “up side down” trap. They believe I exaggerate and most have no time nor patience to listen to the detailed facts when I try to show them that I do not. It is a slow uphill battle but it is worth fighting.

  7. I suppose the counter is that they could have just rolled their eyes at the letters, and moved on and not published them – as you state, it’s not like CTFK have any real power, other than presumably having some influence with the FDA (in the same way ASH have some sway with DoH/policy – they can make things lean a bit, but they can’t actually make real changes).

    While you may feel the rhetoric around it screams ‘sir doth protest too much’ from some parties, I think it’s useful to note that the amateur advocacy movement – those who haven’t been privy to this or explicitly aware of it before, in this manner – are aware of it now. I think that might be why it got so much traction on the old social media.

    As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve only been looking into all this since in anger since the start of the year, and the things I’ve seen in that time have utterly flabbergasted and bemused me – the anti THR lot seem to live on an entirely different plane of reality where up is down, black is white, and cats and dogs live together in peace; this letter is just another example of that reality warping.

    For me, that’s confusing, aggravating and frustrates me no end.

    For you and others who have been in the field for a while, I suppose it’s just Thursday….

    • Yes, just Thursday.

      Make no mistake. It is interesting to analyze, which I did a bit of. It is fine to tout as an example. It is damn funny to ridicule (the best reason for publishing it). What it is not, however, is anything remotely important. But there is much that is and was important, and treating this clowning as if it were on par mostly serves to diminish what really matters.

  8. Indeed Carl, your analysis holds true. This is minor league shenanigans, and may prove to be a distraction to divert attention from something more maleficent. For those who study the tortuous machinations of those who seek to make the world better at the expense of self-determination this is indeed small change. But it is important for folks such as yourself to realize that in all the years you have fought this monster you have not had the public’s interest to play to. You left this all closeted in history, only to be discovered if one tells the old tales. It would be a proper act of humility to place this in context with the insight that those now likely to read you are now more that the small audience of studied colleagues – but a keenly interested, public.

    What a difference the dialog makes when it becomes “What you see in recent times is but a pale reflection of prior events you should know about” instead of “This diminishes the real issues and is rather insulting to those who have endured actual attacks”. In short, what you take as an insult is actually your own misunderstanding that you are now, finally, playing to a wider audience. It is unwise to belittle the very public that has finally awakened to your cause.

    I also take issue with the notion that CFTK has little influence on the process. You, of all people, should know better. Their prohibitionist campaign’s influence has moved grants and political gainsmanship quite effectively into the offices of those who support their cause and away from anyone who might deign to disagree. It is hubris at best to view CFTK as anything but one of the maleficent actors, born out by history’s record in development of the MSA and FSPTCA and most recently the deeming. Remember, DHHS, FDA, IOM, and CDC work not for PhRMA, tobacco, or the public, but for Congress – and CFTK has enjoyed considerable privilege in those hallways for a very long time.

    It may be momentous indeed that their communique has found the light of day at a time when it could be put more prominently in the public’s eye. That it comes at a time when there is a plethora of 7 second sound bytes illustrating similar corruption in so many areas of government is a potential bonus. What better time to reinforce that with some further evidence from your historic archives?

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