FRIDAY, Jan. 14 (HealthDayNews) -- Tobacco companies were working as recently as three years ago to contradict research that strengthened the scientific link between smoking and cancer, a new report based on industry documents claims.
That work ran counter to the industry's public pledge to "support a single, consistent public health message on the role played by cigarette smoking in the development of disease in smokers," according to the report published in the Jan. 14 online issue of The Lancet. That pledge of corporate responsibility came on the heels of a $206 billion settlement with states the industry made in 1998 to pay for the costs of smoking-related health care.
The latest revelations come from researchers at the Center for Tobacco Control, Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).
"This is something the tobacco companies have done since the '50s, with the funding of fraudulent research and these sorts of things," said study author Stanton Glantz, a UCSF professor of medicine and a self-described anti-smoking activist. "After they settled with the states in 1998, especially Philip Morris and BAT (British American Tobacco) started saying they were behaving differently. What this paper is showing is that their behavior, at least in the post-1998 era, hasn't changed, so they're still out there trying to undermine the entire scientific enterprise."
Glantz' study centers on industry reaction to groundbreaking research that linked a component of tobacco smoke to genetic mutations known to cause cancer.
Mutations in the p53 gene are found in more than half of all human tumors, including 60 percent of lung cancers. Damage to the gene leads to the uncontrolled proliferation of cells that is the hallmark of cancer.
The carcinogen benzo[a]pyrene was first identified in cigarette smoke in 1952. In the 1990s, exposure to benzo[a]pyrene was shown to cause changes in the p53 gene. In 1996, researchers showed that benzo[a]pyrene's interaction with p53 mirrored mutations found in human lung tumors, a discovery that provided molecular evidence of how cigarettes cause cancer.
The authors of the Lancet article searched through previously confidential tobacco industry documents, which were made public by litigation, to ascertain the tobacco industry's response to the research.
Here's what they found, according to the journal article: Before the landmark 1996 discovery, the industry supported research looking into p53 mutations.
Following the publication of the 1996 paper, however, the industry downplayed the results, then planned and carried out research projects to contradict the findings. And some of that research was conducted and published by individuals who had financial connections to the tobacco industry, the Lancet researchers said.
Two reports in particular stood out, the researchers said, and both appeared in the scientific journal Mutagenesis, whose editor-in-chief they charge had an undisclosed history of working as a researcher and consultant to the tobacco industry.
In July 1998, David N. Cooper and Michael Krawczak published a critique of the 1996 report in Mutagenesis. Although there was no evidence that the article was funded by the tobacco industry, the Lancet authors said that Cooper had been linked with Scientific Research Group (SRG), an arm of BAT. Subsequent BAT memos advocated "supporting" Cooper, and SRG's 1993 budget earmarked 25,000 pounds for Cooper for a report on "mutations and thrombotic disease." The Lancet authors said they could not tell whether Cooper actually completed that report.
Then, in November 2000, Mutagenesis published a study that argued against the p53 connection. The lead researcher, Thilo Paschke, was an employee of a German association of cigarette manufacturers, but his employment was not acknowledged when his paper was published, the Lancet researchers said.
James M. Parry, who was editor-in-chief of Mutagenesis at the time both articles were published, also had undisclosed ties to the tobacco industry, including research and consultancy contracts with Philip Morris and BAT, the researchers said. In 1986, he approached the Tobacco Advisory Council, a British consortium of tobacco companies, for industry funding and appeared to have had connections to the industry dating as late as 2001, the Lancet researchers said. He stepped down as editor of Mutagenesis that same year.
Officials from the Oxford University Press, which owns the journal, could not be reached for comment on the Lancet study.
Philip Morris USA would not comment on the specific allegations in the Lancet article. "We agree with the overwhelming scientific and medical consensus that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer and heart disease and other serious diseases in smokers," said company spokeswoman Jennifer Golisch. "We agree that cigarette smoking is addictive and that to reduce the health effects of smoking the best thing to do is to quit."
Meanwhile, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a branch of the World Health Organization that maintains a database of p53 mutations used by researchers, denounced the tobacco industry's tactics.
"The tobacco industry tried to tamper with this evidence because of the implications in the recognition of tobacco smoke as the cause of individual cases of lung cancer," IARC Director Dr. Peter Boyle said in a statement. "Their strategy of infiltrating the scientific community to undermine the normal process of peer review and publication is distressing for the scientists whose work is targeted. It is also damaging for outstanding journals and academic institutions whose record with respect to tobacco research might appear to be blurred by the actions of a few individuals who maintained undisclosed tobacco industry ties."
However, medical journals also seem to bear some responsibility, the Lancet researchers added.
In 1997, only 16 percent of 1,396 "highly ranked" scientific and medical journals had conflict-of-interest policies in place. Since 2001, the authors added, Mutagenesis has published conflict-of-interest statements for authors and executive editors, but not for the editorial board.
As of January 2005, Parry was still a member of the Mutagenesis editorial board, the Lancet researchers said. However, on the journal's Web site, Parry is listed only as a founding editor.
The California Attorney General has more on the Master Settlement Agreement that was made by seven tobacco companies after 46 states filed lawsuits against the industry.