Should public health bodies use firms that support the tobacco industry?

2 September 2013

Cigarette by FriedDough on Flickr

In the wake of the UK government’s decision to scrap plans for plain packaging of cigarettes, and the ensuing furore following allegations about the possible influence on that decision of political strategist Lynton Crosby, who has links with the tobacco industry, four prominent addiction researchers from UCL have issued a call for health care organisations and governments around the globe to avoid using market research firms that also work for tobacco companies.

In mid-July, the UK Department of Health revealed in a public statement that it would shelve plans to introduce plain packaging of cigarettes, widely reported as a policy u-turn.

There was concern about the possible influence of Conservative campaign strategist Lynton Crosby, whose PR and lobbying firm has links with the tobacco industry. Crosby has since denied that he had had "any conversation or discussion with, or lobbied, the prime minister, or indeed the health secretary or the health minister, on plain packaging or tobacco issues."

However, the allegations have led to worldwide debates over the wisdom of government leaders using public relations firms that also represent the tobacco industry, thereby giving the industry another opportunity to influence health policy.

We could begin by asking individual market research companies who specialise in healthcare and governmental work if they would be willing to avoid working with tobacco clients. If enough companies respond positively, we can establish rules to favour those companies in any contracting process.

Dr Jamie Brown, UCL Epidemiology and Public Health

In an editorial published online today in the scientific journal Addiction, researchers from the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre at UCL have asked public health organisations and governments to go one step further and avoid using market research firms with tobacco industry links.

They argue that market research firms that serve both the healthcare industry and the tobacco industry face a potentially unresolvable conflict of interest: the information they gather for their public health clients would be of great use to their tobacco clients, whose goals are not in the interests of public health. Although market research companies say they have internal safeguards against such information-sharing, it would be far better to avoid the potential conflict in the first place.

Lead author Dr Jamie Brown (UCL Epidemiology & Public Health) says: “We could begin by asking individual market research companies who specialise in healthcare and governmental work if they would be willing to avoid working with tobacco clients. If enough companies respond positively, we can establish rules to favour those companies in any contracting process. If not, we can open negotiations with the major research companies to broker a strict policy on client engagement.”

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Media contact: David Weston

Image caption: Cigarette by Fried Dough on Flickr


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