Consumer groups and public health experts have raised concern over the quality of a recent study produced by researchers from the University of Bath in the UK over the speculative method it employed without using any scientific evidence in labeling tobacco harm reduction advocates.
Researchers from the University of Bath’s Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG) recently published a study which explored the Twitter activity around the eighth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and resorted to labeling different groups that posted Twitter messages, instead of discussing the messages posted.
Consumer groups said the study used highly inaccurate and unfair descriptions that undermined the quality of the research and the reputation of the University of Bath which confirmed on its website has received significant funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies—the influential group that leads the opposition to tobacco harm reduction products.
Unlike the University of Bath’s TCRG, consumer groups said they were not receiving funds from a multi-billion-dollar institution such as Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Public health policy expert David Sweanor, an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa, said funding from bodies such as Bloomberg Philanthropies that pursue an abstinence-only agenda raises concerns. “Michael Bloomberg is on record saying vaping should be banned, and the major recipients of his money fail to distinguish between products based on relative risks and thus end up protecting cigarettes by attacking low-risk alternatives,” Sweanor said.
“While groups are hungry for funding, they should also be aware of the corrupting influence of sources with an unscientific, irrational and inhumane agenda,” he said.
Clive Bates, a global THR advocate and former director of the UK’s Action on Smoking and Health, said the Bath article contains all manner of unguarded allegations about who funds who and for what. “Of course the analysis is garbage—it takes no account of impact,” he said. “It’s almost as if they think it is unfair that people should even talk about these issues or should capture their hashtag.”
The discriminatory labeling by the Bath researchers drew protests from groups such as the Association of Vapers India, which advocates for less harmful alternatives to combustible cigarettes. “We have written to the journal raising objections over casting us as a tobacco industry front group without any evidence and by drawing unfair inferences from our membership of International Network of Nicotine Consumer Organisations (INCCO),” AVI director Jagannath Sarangapani said in response to the name-tagging by the University of Bath researchers.
AVI clarified that it was formed in 2016 when vapers began protesting the vape bans spreading across Indian states, which were being pushed for by the Bloomberg Philanthropies network. “AVI is an independent, consumer-run organization with no financial ties to INNCO, the Foundation for Smoke-free World (FSFW) or the tobacco industry,” Sarangapani said.
“Such accusations are hence blatant attempts to rob consumers of their voice so that the Bloomberg network, which the authors belong to, can keep influencing governments to impose bans on lower-risk alternatives which could have helped address the tobacco-related health crisis, especially in low-income countries where people cannot afford medical treatments to deal with the consequences of tobacco use and hence harm prevention is a key measure,” Sarangapani said.
The Coalition of Asia Pacific Tobacco Harm Reduction Advocates (CAPHRA) said the University of Bath researchers missed putting evidence in the study in the way science should be presented.
Nancy Loucas, the Executive Coordinator of CAPHRA and co-director of AVCA New Zealand, said it was unfortunate that the Bath researchers did not go to the extent of perusing the websites of the organizations or applying any scientific method in their assumption. “When doing research, following the scientific method, you have a hypothesis (question) that you are going to investigate—in this case: Does the group have any financial connection to funds from big tobacco? The next step in the process is to develop a method to test your hypothesis—in this case, either looking at its financials which are publicly available on the charities commission website or asking someone directly about it,” she said.
“After you have chosen your method, you gather evidence, make an objective analysis, and state your findings to make a conclusion. Your method should be thorough and your research should be objective in order to maintain the integrity of your research (and yourself). The evidence will either prove/disprove your original hypothesis. Obviously that didn’t happen,” Loucas said.
Loucas said the speculative method employed by Bath researchers has no place in any scientific study, which should make readers question any of the findings that are produced by those who choose to play such games.
In August 2018, the University of Bath made a major funding announcement that put Bath TCRG at the center of a new $20-million global industry watchdog. “With significant funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, our Tobacco Control Research Group will spearhead a brand new global tobacco industry watchdog,” it said.
“Along with the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control based in Thailand and the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (The Union) in Paris, the new watchdog will build on the success of the TCRG’s ground-breaking tobacco industry research and flagship TobaccoTactics website by extending its scale and geographic reach, in particular to low and middle-income countries and by increasing the regularity and responsiveness of its outputs,” the University of Bath said.
Since 2007, Bloomberg Philanthropies has committed nearly $1 billion to combat tobacco use worldwide.
Consumer groups said the funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies has not only prejudiced the quality of research work of University of Bath’s TCRG but also made it a mouthpiece of Bloomberg, an organization that wants to ban smoke-free products while rejecting calls to outlaw cigarette smoking.