Should scientists ever have to pick a side? – why building scientific consensus on vaping may require a rethink01.01.21
We expect science to be even handed and rational. A search for truth that builds consensus, informing decisions and guiding effective public policy. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case for many reasons – from limitations within the scientific process itself (data, methodologies etc.) to conflicts of interest outside the world of science. And what about the motivation of the individuals and institutions that commission and fund research?
One of the Next Generation Product (NGP) categories that Imperial Brands operates in – vaping – has been negatively impacted by an apparent absence of scientific consensus in recent years. This has been highlighted recently by an unusual and though provoking paper published by a group of junior scientists based in the US. The paper, entitled ‘Polarization within the field of tobacco and nicotine science and its potential impact on trainees’ suggests junior scientists effectively have to pick a side when doing research into subjects like vaping.
The paper suggests trainee scientists may: “feel pressure from mentors and senior scientists to declare their allegiance to support or oppose e-cigarettes and therefore draw conclusions beyond what is supported by the data or without consideration for trade-offs.”
The article also noted recent evidence indicating most US adults (inaccurately) perceive e-cigarettes to be as harmful or even more harmful than combustible cigarettes, and speculated this “polarized” academic environment could be a contributory factor to this public misunderstanding. They also claim allegiance to any one side of the debate “can restrict career development, undermine the credibility of research and hinder public health progress,” before calling on senior tobacco and nicotine scientists to “reflect” on the current state of play.
It’s understandable that the prospect of being funded by the tobacco or vape industries, with their apparent conflicts of interest as manufacturers and sellers of the products in question, is not an option chosen by many junior scientists trying to forge a career in an academic environment. However, if the tobacco and vape manufacturers don’t fund this research – who will? At the current time the answer is generally the anti-tobacco and anti-vape industry led by organisations like the Truth Initiative.
This leaves us with no consensus, a polarized debate, pressurized scientists and increasingly confused adult smokers.
Openness and transparency
Fontem Ventures is owned by Imperial Brands which manufactures and sells combustible tobacco products and a wide portfolio of NGPs, including vapes, heated tobacco and tobacco-free oral nicotine pouches. We invite critique of all our scientific research through peer-review in international scientific journals and present our work for feedback at international conferences. We believe openness, transparency and collaboration enhance the scientific understanding of NGPs and best serve adult smoker consumers. We also think the robust and comprehensive scientific assessment of the comparative risk of NGPs compared to cigarettes should form the basis of evidence-based regulation. We inevitably focus our NGP research investments most closely on scientifically substantiating our own product portfolio, while at the same time using the research to contribute to the overall public body of scientific research that supports the role of NGPs in tobacco harm reduction (THR).
A common area of confusion around tobacco and NGP science is undoubtedly relative risk (sometimes referred to as relative harm) and absolute harm.
Imperial Brands’ research has been published widely and considers the harm reduction potential for adult smokers who are considering transitioning from combustible tobacco to NGPs like vapes. We deal in relative risk because our NGPs are intended for adult smokers only.
In contrast, research critical of vaping often focuses on absolute risk, which undermines the public health concept of THR and is considerably less useful when considering population-level public health outcomes. By focusing on the absolute risk of vaping you can justifiably conclude that a non-smoker and non-vaper should not start vaping, but you can’t make any conclusions about what smokers should do.
What’s desperately needed is significant independent funding for further research into the public health implications of vaping and other next generation nicotine products that is free of any perceived conflicts of interest. That means no tobacco/NGP industry, no pharmaceutical industry (the owners of various nicotine replacement therapy products) and no anti-tobacco/NGP lobbyists. It is, a positive sign that young scientists who wish to pursue research into tobacco and nicotine-related subjects feel this strong need to voice their legitimate concerns about the current landscape, with its often-negative consequences for both scientific rigour and public policy. Let us hope that their energy can find a new way to build scientific consensus and help improve the lives of over 1 billion adult smokers across the world.
 Huang J, Feng B, Weaver SR, Pechacek TF, Slovic P, Eriksen MP. Changing Perceptions of Harm of e-Cigarette vs Cigarette Use Among Adults in 2 US National Surveys From 2012 to 2017. JAMA Netw. Open. 2019;2(3):e191047-e191047.