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.]