The academic ban on tobacco scientists

Every self-respecting research laboratory has its cabinet of wonders – state-of-the-art equipment, lethal chemicals, animal and human body parts unknown to ordinary people – but the collection at Marianna Gaca’s lab outshines most. In suburban Southampton, a couple of miles from where she received her PhD in biology at Southampton University nine years ago, Gaca has a set of kit at her disposal today that would be the envy of her former professors, as well as of scientists at most university biology labs or even biotech companies.

The 36-year-old scientist shows me her latest gadget: a “wound maker”, for use with human cell cultures. “We take a cell culture, scrape the cells and measure their response to the ‘wound’,” she says. Healthy cells will close the wound: our bodies tend towards resilience. But unhealthy cells have trouble healing themselves, and that can lead to cancer, lung and heart disease.
Gaca and her team of 20 biologists are studying cell cultures that have suffered damage and can’t heal themselves, cultures that might therefore be prone to these ailments. Take, for example, a culture of bronchial cells with which Gaca is working. It represents the lining of the human respiratory tract, and she’s measuring the effect on the cells’ genetic make-up and biochemistry of exposure to tobacco smoke. It turns out that when smoke-exposed bronchial cells meet the wound-maker, they struggle to recover. “Healthy cells will close the wound, but cigarette smoke impairs their ability to do so,” Gaca observes.

Her work might look, at first glance, like commercial suicide for her employer: the company behind these pristine labs is British American Tobacco. Gaca is employed to understand how and why BAT’s products cause lethal diseases in the people who use them – and recently, she’s been asked to share this information with the world.

In fact, the research is a key part of BAT’s business plan. Unlike some other tobacco companies, the century-old group has decided to remain focused on tobacco products (its brands, including Dunhill and Lucky Strike, are sold in more than 180 countries) rather than diversify into other consumer products. After all, despite smoking bans across the western world, 35 per cent of men and 22 per cent of women in developed countries smoke. In the developing world 50 per cent of men and 9 per cent of women smoke, and the number of smokers is rising. Cigarettes may kill people but manufacturing them is not the dying business we might imagine.

And yet within the world of tobacco, BAT does want a more diverse portfolio. It acknowledges the overwhelming medical evidence that smoking kills, and that its long-term future will therefore presumably depend on weaning itself off the conventional cigarettes that still represent the vast majority of sales, and instead perfecting cleaner and safer tobacco products.

Gaca explains how her research chimes with this goal: “Our baseline data about what cigarettes do will help us assess future products. We can now begin to discriminate between different smoking products.” Her boss, Chris Proctor, BAT’s head of science, concurs: “In future, we’ll need to know exactly how people use and respond to our products. That requires a full range of chemical and biological tests and clinical data.”

. . .

The BAT research and development centre may be better equipped than most, but that largesse is not its defining characteristic. Rather, it’s the fact that Gaca’s results, no matter how interesting, will not be discussed freely with her fellow scientists outside BAT. For the past decade, academic scientists in Britain have maintained a blanket ban on accepting funding from the tobacco industry or taking part in joint activities – a decision made under pressure from medical charities.A device for simulating cigarette smoking at the BAT laboratories in Southampton

The logic, according to Cancer Research UK, is that links “direct or indirect” with the tobacco industry are corrupting. Nor is that a hysterical claim. In the case of pharmaceutical industry collaboration with academia, the drug companies’ scientists often “design the studies, perform the analysis, write the papers, and decide whether and in what form to publish the results”, according to Marcia Angell, former editor of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. In the US, a probe by Charles Grassley, a Republican Senator, has revealed numerous links between pharmaceutical groups’ donations to universities and payment of consulting fees to their academic staff, and favourable reviews of the companies’ products by those academics.

Still, BAT is frustrated by the ban, which has been encoded in a protocol with Universities UK, the umbrella body for higher education. It goes beyond collaboration with colleges. The company’s scientists have historically published only three or four papers a year in scientific journals (the low rate reflects a combination of unsympathetic journal editors, uninspiring research and the low priority given in the past to engagement with the outside world). And, according to Proctor, when the BAT scientists attend conferences, they sometimes get hassled. Gaca tells me: “There are some meetings where we find it very difficult to present our work, but that doesn’t stop us from attending and learning.”

Meanwhile, the academic ban is enforced with two powerful weapons: the threat of adverse publicity for anyone accepting tobacco money, and the medical charities’ spending power. The charities will not fund research at any institution collaborating with a tobacco company. No university would allow, say, its chemistry department to embark on a joint research project with BAT if that meant the Wellcome Trust cut off funding to the biology department.

Adding to BAT’s isolation is the fact that it doesn’t have any research-minded peers within British industry. The other big tobacco company based in the UK, Imperial Tobacco, has responded to the academic boycott by withdrawing from research. “As time has gone on,” says Alex Parsons, Imperial’s head of corporate communications, “and fewer and fewer universities and external experts are prepared to work with tobacco researchers, our investment in research has declined. We do not have a scientific research unit in the UK.” Outside Britain, a few companies, such as Japan Tobacco and Philip Morris in the US, do have significant research operations, but “they seem reluctant to work with us”, says David O’Reilly, BAT’s head of public health.

This reluctance may be due to competitive pressures, but when BAT first set up the Southampton labs in 1956, the reasons for working in isolation were different. The labs’ establishment, in an anonymous building between a now-closed cigarette factory and the semi-detached homes of Millbrook, followed the British Medical Journal’s publication in 1950 of a landmark study: a team of epidemiologists led by Richard Doll had proved beyond reasonable doubt that smoking caused lung cancer. The BAT research centre’s working hypothesis was that Doll and his colleagues were right. The job of the scientists at the centre, then, was to build greater knowledge of tobacco smoke and investigate product modifications that could reduce or eliminate the risks. However, at the time, the tobacco industry was united in denying any causal connection between cigarettes and cancer; secrecy was of the essence because BAT’s scientific work undermined that stance.

By the 1960s, BAT’s research efforts (and those of other tobacco groups) had come more into the open. Some British academics worked with the tobacco industry until the 1990s. But Cancer Research UK formalised its funding ban on tobacco collaborators as a code of practice in 1998; in 2000 universities learned what could happen if they ignored it: Nottingham was savaged in the press for accepting a £3.8m donation from BAT – given to the university’s corporate responsibility centre.

Even minimal contacts between Big Tobacco and academia “give the industry a credibility and respect it does not merit”, says Jean King, tobacco control director at Cancer Research UK. Rather than benefiting public health, BAT’s harm reduction work lends credence to an industry which, King says, should not exist in anything like its present form. “The same industry that is pursuing the ‘harm reduction’ agenda in countries with strong tobacco control measures is aggressively promoting its addictive lethal products elsewhere in the world,” she says.

. . .

Before BAT settled on “harm reduction” as the focus for its research, it wandered down several culs-de-sac. In the 1960s and 1970s, development of “synthetic cigarettes” made from materials other than tobacco came to naught. Then in the 1970s and 1980s the industry’s low-tar and low-nicotine cigarettes turned into a debacle: lab research showed that the products produced fewer harmful effects, but in practice smokers puffed harder to get the same effect – negating benefits.

By the beginning of the millennium, Proctor concedes, BAT was running a rather tired research effort concentrating on the chemistry of tobacco smoke – a continuation of previous work rather than a programme for the future. But the past few years have seen a transformation – an influx of money (funding has doubled, according to Proctor) and scientists, particularly biologists. The company now employs 300 research staff and spent £97m on R&D in the last financial year. This is about 1 per cent of sales, and not out of line with other consumer products companies; still, BAT insists it represents a shift in focus. “If we do really good science, it will be accepted,” says Proctor. “And the quality and breadth of our science is much higher today than it was 10 years ago.” One measure supports that statement: Proctor expects his scientists to publish as many as 20 papers in respected journals this year. The company has also begun to describe its research on a new website, hoping that if it can’t get to the wider scientific community, the wider community will come to BAT.

Proctor, O’Reilly and their team are realistic enough to accept that British universities are not likely to co-operate with the company in the near future, however. Instead, they are cultivating relationships with academics in eastern and southern Europe. “In Italy we have a very strong relationship with academics,” says Antonella Bassi, the company’s international scientific affairs manager, who is herself Italian. She has organised a series of clinical studies in collaboration with several Italian universities to measure the effects of cigarettes on “biomarkers” – biochemical indicators of potential future disease – in volunteers’ blood and urine. The programme, which is still in its preliminary stages, will compare biomarkers in smokers, ex-smokers and never-smokers. “At the beginning, we did a survey, asking a number of scientists in Italy about working with us,” says Bassi. “Most said, ‘We don’t have any problems.’”

BAT researchers do not seem overwrought about the isolation. Most chose to work for a tobacco company with eyes wide open, and with an appreciation of the higher salaries offered by BAT than what academia could provide. “For me the job was a challenge, and that’s what I like,” says Gaca. “I could see there was a long-term future in working for BAT.” Peter Clayton, who analyses the chemical residues on cigarette butts, agrees: “I like the stance of the company, in recognising the link between smoking and disease and trying to reduce the harm done by smoking.” But he admits that “market forces” brought him to BAT.

. . .

BAT does not employ more smokers, as a proportion of the workforce, than other companies, but the smokers here are better looked after. An open courtyard at the heart of the research centre is dominated by two large, elegant, heated “pods” where people can light up on a cold day. Although all BAT offices comply with England’s indoor workplace smoking ban, there is a legal exemption for smoking for research purposes in designated labs such as BAT’s. Staff smokers, then, provide a ready source of volunteers for the R&D scientists employed here.19f6839a-0dfd-11de-b099-0000779fd2ac

O’Reilly used to smoke but now he’s a devotee of snus – the most prominent “harm reduction” product in BAT’s repertoire. It rhymes with “puss” and is smokeless – users tuck finely ground moist tobacco in a small sachet behind the upper lip. The company sells snus in Sweden, Norway, South Africa and Canada, but the European Union banned sales of some forms of smokeless tobacco, including snus, in 1992, on the grounds that it can cause oral cancer and other diseases. (Sweden, where the product originated, secured an exemption to the ban when it joined the EU in 1995.)

BAT is allowed to make small quantities of snus for research purposes in a pilot programme at the Southampton laboratory. As we tour the plant – in long white lab coats, head and shoes covered, since snus is produced to full food hygiene standards – O’Reilly rails against the regulations banning snus sales while permitting “far more dangerous” products such as chewing tobacco and nasal snuff. “It’s crazy,” he says, “that the safest version of tobacco is the one that is illegal in the EU.”

The “tobacco control community” disagrees, according to Amanda Sandford, research director of Action on Smoking and Health (Ash). The group used to see some merit in the argument that snus could play a part in weaning people off cigarettes and on to something much less dangerous. But the view now is that smokers should move directly to “clean” nicotine products, such as nicotine gum and patches – which are both made by pharmaceutical companies – rather than anything based on tobacco.

There is no prospect of engaging scientifically with tobacco companies in the foreseeable future, Sandford believes. “There is nothing to be gained because the industry has such a black history of misleading people and distorting scientific evidence,” she says. “We might begin to take them seriously if they undertake to phase out cigarette production by a specific date, really focus on less harmful products and submit to an independent regulatory body.”

For Proctor, those conditions do not seem completely out of reach. “Saying that we’d stop making cigarettes by a particular date would be an empty gesture,” he says, “but we’d certainly buy into a strong regulatory regime, based on real science and supported by the government, Ash and other interested parties. Then we’d have the certainty we need to develop products beneficial to public health.” And then Marianna Gaca and her fellow tobacco scientists would be able to come in from the cold.

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