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Heretics in the Church of Tobacco Control

H.P. Lovecraft opined in 1931 that “if religion were true its followers would not try to bludgeon their young into artificial conformity, but would merely insist on their unbending quest for truth ….” Of all the professions in the world, one might think scientists would be most inclined to agree with this sentiment. But, as the case of Dr. Marewa Glover demonstrates, anti-tobacco research has become more religion than science, where anyone who dares to deviate from or even question the prevailing dogma is cast out as a heretic.

Dr. Glover, formerly of New Zealand’s Massey University, has a long and distinguished career as a public health and smoking cessation expert. She has focused her work on the health threats faced by indigenous peoples, especially that of smoking, which is astonishingly prevalent in the Māori community (30% for men and 37% for women). Despite her credentials and award-winning work, a cabal of researchers are trying to shut her out of the public health community in New Zealand.

As revealed by a Radio New Zealand (RNZ) investigation, Glover raised the ire of her colleagues in the anti-tobacco community when she stopped toeing the party line that all nicotine is evil and instead began suggesting that lower-risk sources of nicotine, like e-cigarettes, might actually help reduce smoking and smoking-related illness. However, the real trouble for Glover began when she founded the Centre of Research Excellence on Indigenous Sovereignty and Smoking in 2018.

The Centre, which seeks to reduce tobacco-related harm in indigenous communities, received $1.5 million in funding from the Foundation for a Smoke Free World, which, in turn, is solely funded by Philip Morris International (PMI). This link gave Glover’s anti-tobacco adversaries the fodder they needed to start a blackball campaign rolling.

Emails obtained by RNZ show that upon Glover’s nomination for the prestigious Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year award (and ultimately one of three finalists), researchers at Otago University launched a campaign to stop local boards of health from working with Glover. Though two of these district health boards have worked with Glover since, the national Ministry of Health has warned them not to work with her Centre. Hāpai te Hauora, which appears to be the primary provider of public health services for the Maori community for the entire nation, now refuses to work with Glover. 

In May, a group of 13 indigenous researchers from around the globe published what amounts to an ad hominem screed against Glover and her Centre in the journal Tobacco Control. Though the paper aims to demonstrate why the Centre should not be trusted, the logic is wholly derived from the guilt by association fallacy. In other words, the only evidence they provide to support the assertion that work being done by Glover’s Centre cannot be in the interest of indigenous people is that tobacco companies are bad and anyone associated with tobacco companies in any way must also be bad.

In my 2018 study, “Fear Profiteers,” I described the four-step playbook used by anti-tobacco activists to establish a stranglehold on the debate over e-cigarettes, the third step of which is to “discredit unsupportive science and scientists.” Choking out dissent maintains their veneer of correctness but also serves as a deterrent for any scientist flirting with noncompliance. As distressing as these attacks may personally be for Dr. Glover, it provides an enlightening illustration of the playbook in action.

Glover’s experience isn’t unique. Drs. James Enstrom and Geoffrey Kabat, two highly respected researchers, were the subject of a similar campaign while working on their secondhand smoking study, the largest at the time. The data came from over 35,000 non-smoking spouses of smokers, collected since 1959 by the American Cancer Society (ACS). But, when initial analyses made it clear that the data found no evidence of a deleterious secondhand smoking effect, ACS pulled support. Finding nobody else in the medical community willing to fund the final years of their study, Enstrom reluctantly accepted a grant from the tobacco industry-funded Center for Indoor Air Research and published the results in 2003.

The anti-tobacco community responded to the study with predictable horror and, without any other evidence of flaws, used the funding from the tobacco industry to discredit the study and the authors (though 95% of the funding came from anti-tobacco groups). The study generated dozens of responses from the anti-tobacco community in the academic literature, but despite its extraordinarily controversial findings, almost zero coverage in the media.

For proponents of the secondhand smoke theory, this was the best result they could have hoped for. As two sociologists who analyzed the response to the Enstrom-Kabat study noted, the ideal form of silencing in a “truth regime” is self-silencing. In other words, despite a lack of evidence most people by 2003 believed the secondhand smoke theory was true. Enstrom and Kabat’s study challenged this dogma, so it was ignored (either out of genuine belief or fear of diverging from popular belief.) And the more the media ignored challenges to secondhand smoking, the more valid the theory became and the less willing people were to give competing ideas consideration.

As Dr. Glover eloquently described her situation, “they want to silence me…they’ve got to discredit me because it undermines their singing from the same song sheet and I’m singing a different song and it’s like, shoot that bird.” It’s a vicious, but undeniably effective strategy if the aim is to bludgeon people into a conformity of belief. But such a goal is (or should be) a mortal sin for scientists.