A bitter academic row has triggered calls for a leading university to withdraw two key scientific papers sponsored by “big tobacco” and used to make the case against the introduction of selling cigarettes in plain packets.
The papers, published by the University of Zurich, analysed the impact of plain packets in Australia. Their findings were widely disseminated in the media and used by the tobacco lobby to make the case that the health initiative had no discernible effect on smoking rates among the young in Australia, and therefore should not be introduced in the UK.
But now a group of academics has written to the university calling for the papers, funded and supervised by Philip Morris International (PMI), which makes Marlboro cigarettes, to be withdrawn.
In his letter to Dr Michael Hengartner, the university’s rector, Pascal Diethelm, president of OxyRomandie, a Swiss anti-smoking organisation, lists seven errors that he and his team say they have identified. “They are extremely serious,” Diethelm says. “Taken individually, most of them are sufficient to invalidate the findings of the papers. Collectively, they are damning.”
The two papers were written by Ashok Kaul and Michael Wolf, who have robustly defended their work, which was cited as key evidence by tobacco manufacturers in submissions to the Department of Health’s consultation on plain packaging.
On the back of their findings, PMI issued a press release stating: “The plain packaging experiment in Australia has not deterred young smokers, professors from the department of economics at Zurich University and the University of Saarland found in a report released today.”
However, Diethelm claims the errors go towards “reinforcing the conclusion of a lack of evidence, ie, they all play in favour of the commercial interest of the financial sponsor”.
The row has been taken up by others. A group of doctors recently declared on the BMJ website that “both of these papers are flawed in conception as well as design, but have none the less been widely publicised as cautionary tales”. Diethelm’s letter calls on the university to take the papers down from its website. “We ask the University of Zurich to retract them because they are erroneous beyond repair and because … they interfere with the public health policy of other countries… ”
In both papers, which were not peer-reviewed, Kaul and Wolf acknowledge that PMI provided funding. However, they do not reveal that the company demanded sight of the study before publication and the right to put forward suggestions.
Dr Nicholas Hopkinson, senior lecturer in respiratory medicine at Imperial College London – who criticised the papers on the BMJ website – described Zurich University’s collaboration with PMI as a “stain” on its reputation.
In a response to the criticisms, which they describe as “spurious” and “defamatory”, the two authors said: “As the authors of the working papers – committed to an open, free and objective scientific debate – we will not withdraw them from public scrutiny.”
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