The Times newspaper has gone over the line defaming scientists: legal action is required


By Dr Farsalinos

Few days ago I commented on the dangers related to the strategy of criticizing (I should say, intimidating) scientists for visiting a press conference and presenting just because the tobacco industry would be there. I mentioned that: “Criticism is welcomed and needed when it is focused on the scientific content. Personal insults, direct or indirect threats and attacks on the scientific, personal and professional integrity are not only inappropriate but can also be considered as defamation and have legal implications.”. Unfortunately, only few days after I released my comment, I think the time for legal action has come, on the grounds of defamation.

On October 12, the well-known UK newspaper “The Times” released 3 articles (here, here and here; all behind a paywall) which contained some very aggressive comments and personal attacks against scientists and anti-smoking advocates for being funded or supported by tobacco industry to support e-cigarettes. Basically, the whole story was about scientists participating to the GTNF conference. But this time, the situation has escalated with extreme and unsubstantiated accusations. In one of the articles, there was a section titled “Experts making a packet”, where the author (Katie Gibbons) names scientists and advocates for receiving money from the industry to promote e-cigarettes. To the best of my knowledge, none of them have ever been funded by tobacco companies to do research on e-cigarettes. (Note: I am not repeating the names here because I do not want to participate in this defamatory campaign; I am not mentioned in these articles). One of the articles claims that: “Britain’s biggest cancer charity has condemned scientists who accepted tens of thousands of pounds from tobacco companies to carry out research into electronic cigarettes.”. I am not aware of any official statement by Cancer UK, but there is an even more serious issue. I cannot remember any study on e-cigarettes performed by independent researchers but funded by the tobacco industry. There may be one or two cases I do not remember (I searched but could not find any), but this is nothing compared to the thousands of research papers on e-cigarettes. Therefore, the authors of these articles are literally lying about the studies funded by the tobacco industry and are lying about the involvement of the named experts in tobacco-funded research. Obviously, there are few studies authored by scientists who are employees of the industry, but this is clearly mentioned in the affiliations. The newspaper articles obviously claim that scientists not working in the industry have been funded by the tobacco industry to support e-cigarettes. The articles are not criticizing scientists working in the tobacco industry, but independent experts in the field. Moreover, they directly accuse Public Health England for the report published last year about e-cigarettes and misleadingly report that the statement about the 95% reduced risk was solely derived from the study by Nutt et al. (“Last year Public Health England urged smokers to switch to vaping, citing a 2014 study led by David Nutt at Imperial College, which found e-cigarettes to be 95 per cent safer than tobacco”). Again, this is a lie, for two reasons:

1. The paper by Nutt et al. was not funded by any tobacco company, and this has been clarified repeatedly .

2. In a response letter published in The Lancet, the authors of the Public Health England Report clearly stated that: “The estimate that e-cigarette use is around 95% less harmful than smoking is based on the facts that: first, cigarette smoke constituents that harm health are either absent in e-cigarette vapour or, if present, are mostly at levels much below 5% of smoking doses; and second, the main chemicals present in e-cigarettes only have not been associated with any serious risk”.

Basically, the articles are trying to criminalize a positive and supportive opinion about e-cigarettes. Characteristically, for one of the named experts they mention: “…who has written papers on the benefits of vaping”. Would they have named him if he wrote anything against e-cigarettes? Most likely they would not. The problem is not just the criminalization of common sense. The major issue is that all these articles did not include a single sentence showing that any of the publications of the named experts suffered from methodological, analytical or interpretational bias. There is not a single comment on whether something was wrong with their research. So, the ground for making such extreme accusations and criticizing scientists is the alleged financial support from the tobacco industry. This is inappropriate not only because it is a lie but also because it is a symptom of argumentative weakness and insufficiency. As I mentioned in my previous comment: “Criticism is welcomed and needed when it is focused on the scientific content. Personal insults, direct or indirect threats and attacks on the scientific, personal and professional integrity are not only inappropriate but can also be considered as defamation and have legal implications”. There is not a single sentence on any of the articles criticizing the scientific content, saying that something was wrong in the methodology, results, presentation or interpretation. It is all about alleged affiliations with the tobacco industry.

I think this is time for legal action. The unsubstantiated, misleading, inappropriate and insulting accusations are totally unacceptable. This is journalism at its worst. In general, I am against legal actions because they rarely solve such problems but divert the discussion to irrelevant issues. However, in this case I think the response should be straightforward and aggressive. Moreover, I think the issue here is not only related to the protection of the integrity of those named in the article. There is a much broader issue. Anyone (including myself) can be in the same position in the future, receiving these unfair and mendacious accusations just because we have an opinion. In that context, I think we should all condemn this shameful campaign. Perhaps a letter sent to The Times, co-signed by a large number of scientists not mentioned in the articles, is a step needed to eliminate these phenomena. I will be glad to participate to this, in an effort to put an end to these disgraceful tactics.



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