“Next Time It Could Be You”—The McCarthyism in Tobacco Control

    At the end of November, an extraordinary episode caused outrage: the expulsion of Karl Erik Lund from a conference on e-cigarettes held in France. Dr. Lund is one of the world’s most prominent researchers on tobacco harm reduction. Currently with the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, he has published important papers about snus and has testified on behalf of plaintiffs suing the tobacco industry. He has received a preventative medicine award from the Norwegian Medical Association, among many other roles and accolades. 

    Yet on November 26, the French Cancer Research Institute (INCa) removed Lund from his position as co-chair of the conference’s scientific committee, canceled his presentation and banned him from even attending, despite the fact he was one of the organizers. 

    His removal from the conference appears to have been prompted after a posting on Tobacco Tactics.

    His “crime”? He had answered a request for information from Knowledge Action Change (KAC), which produces the Global State of Tobacco Harm Reduction reports. That work is supported by a grant from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW); the Foundation receives its funding from Philip Morris International (PMI). Lund had sent the authors relevant information—and links—on snus and was, consequently, noted for his small contribution.

    That’s all it took. His removal from the conference appears to have been prompted after a posting on Tobacco Tactics (TT), a website run by the University of Bath that tracks the tobacco industry’s influence around the world, drew attention to that credit. All in all, the International Association on Smoking Control & Harm Reduction for better health (SCOHRE)—of which Lund is vice president—was essentially characterized as an ally and front group for the tobacco industry. Conspicuously, the posting was timed to right before the conference started and, just to make sure, someone passed the information to the conference organizers at INCa, which led to the action being taken.  

    Anna Gilmore, a professor of public health at the University of Bath who heads up TT, conceded this point after many enraged nicotine policy experts objected. She said in a December email that there “is no suggestion that Prof. Lund has ever taken tobacco industry funding.” But by that time, the damage was done. (Gilmore did not respond to Filter’s request for comment by publication time.)

    Originated in 2011, Tobacco Tactics is a site designed to publicly link proponents of tobacco harm reduction (THR) with industry funding, encouraging their exclusion from public health conversations on bases other than the merits of their research or arguments. It was boosted in 2018 by an injection of $20 million from Michael Bloomberg, a staunch ideological opponent of vapes and other products that are helping people switch to safer nicotine delivery around the world. Ironically, the deal was announced in the Guardian with an article paid for in part “by Vital Strategies with funding by Bloomberg Philanthropies.” In tobacco control circles, this does not add up to a conflict of interest, even though the double standard ought to be clear.

    “There are two ways of looking at this,” Clive Bates, the former director of Action on Smoking and Health (UK), told Filter. “Most have stressed that Karl Erik has impeccable credentials, no connections to commercial entities and that a mistake has been made. But the deeper issue is why this should be grounds for exclusion in the first place. The companies will play a major role in reducing the burden of disease arising from smoking. We shouldn’t treat engagement with them like a contagion.

    Writing about the Lund affair, the journalist Marc Gunther described TT as failing “the most fundamental tests of fairness, accuracy and common sense.” Yet despite being a public institution, it seems unaccountable. THR advocates have filed a number of complaints to the University of Bath’s ethics board over the years, but without response.

    Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. For years, there has been a concerted campaign.

    Only after a storm of criticism did TT say it would discuss the points raised and “consider them further,” before removing the page. Lund’s suspension was also, eventually, lifted: He was invited back to the conference at the last minute, but did not attend. Some who did present at the conference showed public solidarity with Lund by adding slides to express their disgust.

    Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. For years, there has been a concerted campaign, led by Bloomberg and his vehicles, to ostracize THR proponents for real or tenuously exaggerated links with industry. In 2016, for instance, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (CTFK) and the European Network for Smoking and Tobacco Prevention (ENSP) wrote to some participants planning to attend the Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum (GTNF), warning them not to go because of the event’s financial ties to the industry. And even the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco (SRNT) has prevented the industry from presenting science at its conferences, regardless of the merits of their research. 

    Unpleasant as that all is, it can be taken as a tacit acknowledgement by people who demand total abstinence from nicotine that their “quit or die” directive is a losing argument in the face of 8 million annual smoking-related deaths.  

    One of many more recent examples is a charity organizer who planned to moderate a conference panel at the 2022 Global Forum on Nicotine—an event hosted by KAC Communications. The organizer, I was informed, was contacted in advance of their attendance with an ominous warning from a tobacco control NGO. Bravely, they decided to participate anyway, but many would not. This is the chilling effect that McCarthyist tobacco control entities intend to apply. 

    The irony is, by opposing harm reduction alternatives, they effectively promote the cigarettes sold by companies they hate.

    “Mandating ignorance on the dynamics within the tobacco/nicotine field has led to a long series of own-goals by anti-tobacco groups,” David Sweanor, a tobacco industry expert and chair of the advisory board for the Centre for Health, Law, Policy, and Ethics at the University of Ottawa, told Filter. “I have witnessed this throughout my career. People protecting and hugely enriching the cigarette companies, and adding hugely to the toll of death and disease, not because they are being bought off but because they have never meaningfully intellectually engaged on the issue. It is evidently more fulfilling to fight imagined demons.”

    “The fight for a better debate climate must continue … Next time it could be you.”

    Some meetings, including those organized by the University of Bath, have gone to extreme lengths. For example, the STOP: Expose Tobacco campaign (also funded by Bloomberg) at one point banned people from participating if they have links with industry to the fourth degree of consanguinity. The fourth degree of consanguinity includes parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents, spouses, children, siblings, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren, nieces or nephews, grand-nieces or grand-nephews, aunts or uncles, great-aunts or great-uncles and first cousins by blood or marriage.

    There’s now a culture within tobacco control that is dedicated to perverting scientific debate. This has manifested itself with situations such as Lund’s, whereby reputable researchers making good arguments for risk-proportionate regulation of nicotine products are smeared as agents of evil.

    Lund has not been the first to suffer in this way and will not be the last. He has summed it up well in the past: “The fight for a better debate climate must continue, which means that the tactics from TT (and others) must be brought to an end. Next time it could be you.”



    Photograph of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy by Aslan Media via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, has received grants from KAC, FSFW and PMI. Filters Editorial Independence Policy applies.

    • Martin is an international fellow of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance’s Consumer Center. He lives in South London, UK.

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