April 6, 2000 (Washington) -- A new analysis published in the medical journal The Lancet suggests that Philip Morris Co. led an effort to undermine a major European study on the hazards of passive cigarette smoke.
The U.S. tobacco company, though, says it made no effort to undermine the report, and that it is in fact trying to help spread the word about it. Even researchers concede that the study's findings were not considered statistically valid.
The Lancet analysis, based on a review of industry documents, concludes that the tobacco giant launched an industrywide effort to discredit a finding by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that secondhand smoke was associated with a 16% to 17% greater risk of getting lung cancer.
Scientists from the IARC, a branch of the World Health Organization, were having their work reviewed for publication after 10 years of study when it came under attack in the English press. The Lancet article says that after reporters were given private briefings by officials at the British American Tobacco Co., news reports emerged suggesting that the IARC study didn't really show secondhand smoke caused cancer, and even found that passive smoking might protect against the disease.
News stories to that effect were picking up around the world in March of 1998.
"Everybody at the time thought that was pretty outrageous, but nobody had a clue that there was this huge superstructure that had been created to trash this study," study author Stanton Glantz, PhD, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, tells WebMD.
Glantz, a prolific tobacco critic, says he had access to 32 million pages of industry documents from a Minnesota court case to help build his study, which he prepared with researcher Elisa Ong, BA. The pair surmise that Philip Morris was carrying out a global strategy aimed at preventing the spread of antismoking and clean-air regulations from the U.S. to Europe.
According to Glantz, the IARC study cost perhaps $3 million overall, while Philip Morris spent $2 million in just one year of a long campaign to sink the IARC's conclusions -- along with $4 million on research. His analysis says the company's efforts included trying to delay the study, spinning its results, and even attempting to strip it of funding.
"Far from trying in any way to undermine IARC's report ... we are actively disseminating it," Philip Morris says in a written statement. The statement also says that the director of the IARC study has ruled out any tobacco-industry influence on the research.
But a release from the IARC says the study was the subject of a defamation campaign "orchestrated by the tobacco industry."
"Although the attacks did not preempt the publication of the report [in the October 1998 Journal of the National Cancer Institute],... they created confusion and controversy in the interpretation of the results," the IARC's statement says.
What made the original study's importance debatable is that while the IARC team did find an elevated cancer risk with secondhand smoke, the results were not considered statistically significant. Glantz, a statistician, says the study was "underpowered" -- meaning that too few people who hadn't been exposed to secondhand smoke were involved as a comparison.
A number of other studies had already established links between passive smoke and lung cancer.
"Today, we would not respond to a scientific study by engaging in all of the activities referred to in The Lancet article. Our approach today is to move towards solving problems -- hopefully working in an atmosphere of transparency and open dialogue," says the Philip Morris statement.
Glantz says that what Philip Morris was really trying to avoid was the publication of a scientifically definitive statement of the risk of passive smoking. Now, Glantz says, he hopes that will be possible.