Academics and the media have failed dismally to ask the crucial question
of scientists' claims: who is paying you?
Three weeks ago, while looking for something else, I came across one of the most
extraordinary documents I have ever read. It relates to an organisation called
Arise (Associates for Research into the Science of Enjoyment). Though largely
forgotten today, in the 1990s it was one of the world's most influential public-health
groups. First I should explain what it claimed to stand for.
Arise, founded in 1988, seems to have been active until 2004. It described itself
as "a worldwide association of eminent scientists who act as independent
commentators". Its purpose, these eminent scientists said, was to show how
"everyday pleasures, such as eating chocolate, smoking, drinking tea, coffee
and alcohol, contribute to the quality of life".
It maintained that there were good reasons for dropping our inhibitions and indulging
ourselves. "Scientific studies show that enjoying the simple pleasures in
life, without feeling guilty, can reduce stress and increase resistance to disease
... Conversely, guilt can increase stress and undermine the immune system ...
This can lead to, for instance, forgetfulness, eating disorders, heart problems
or brain damage." The "health police", as Arise sometimes called
them, could be causing more harm than good.
Arise received an astonishing amount of coverage. Between September 1993 and March
1994, for example, it generated 195 newspaper articles and radio and television
interviews, in places such as the Wall Street Journal, the International Herald
Tribune, the Independent, the Evening Standard, El País, La Repubblica,
Rai and the BBC. Much of this coverage resulted from a Mori poll, called Naughty
but Nice, that Arise claimed to have commissioned, into the guilty pleasures people
enjoyed most. Here is a typical example (this one from Reuters):
"Puritanical health workers who dictate whether people should smoke or
drink alcohol and coffee are trying to ruin the quality of life, a group of
academics said ... 'Many of us hold the view that it is a person's right to
enjoy these pleasures ...' said Professor David Warburton, a professor of pharmacology
at Reading University in England ... 'Much of health promotion is based on misinformation.
It is politically driven'."
The Today programme gave Warburton an uncontested interview in its prime spot
- at 8.20am. He extolled the calming properties of cigarettes and poured scorn
on public-health messages. Arise has also featured eight times in the Guardian.
Coverage like this continued until October 2004, when the Times repeated Arise's
claim that we should stop "worrying about often ill-founded health scares"
and "listen to our bodies, which naturally seek to protect themselves from
disease by doing the things we enjoy." In hundreds of articles and transcripts
covering its claims, I have found just one instance of a journalist - Madeleine
Bunting in the Guardian - questioning either Arise's science or the motivation
of the scientists.
Warburton, who claimed to run the group, was head of psychopharmacology at
the University of Reading. While Arise was active he published at least a dozen
articles on nicotine in the academic press. In 1989, in the Psychologist, he
mocked the US surgeon general's finding that nicotine is addictive. Most of
his articles were published in the journal Psychopharmacology, of which he was
a senior editor. They maintained that nicotine improved both attention and memory.
I have read seven of these papers. On none of them could I find a declaration
of financial interests, except for two grants from the Wellcome Trust.
In 1998, as part of a settlement of a class action against the tobacco companies
in the US, the firms were obliged to place their internal documents in a public
archive. Among them is the one I came across last month. It is a memo from an
executive in the corporate services department of Philip Morris - the world's
largest tobacco company - to one of her colleagues. The title is "Arise
1994-95 Activities and Funding". "I had a meeting," she began,
"with Charles Hay and Jacqui Smithson (Rothmans) to agree on the 1994-1995
activity plan for Arise and to discuss the funding needed. Enclosed is a copy
of our presentation."
This showed that in the previous financial year Arise had received $373,400:
$2,000 from Coca-Cola, $900 from other firms and the rest - over 99% - from
Philip Morris, British American Tobacco, RJ Reynolds and Rothmans. In 1994-95
its budget would be $773,750. Rothmans and RJ Reynolds had each committed to
provide $200,000, and BAT "has also shown interest". She suggested
that Philip Morris put up $300,000. Then the memo becomes even more interesting.
"The previous 'Naughty but Nice' Mori poll proved to be very effective
in getting wide media coverage. The exercise will be repeated this year on the
theme of 'Stress in the Workplace' ... A draft questionnaire was already submitted
to [Tony Andrade, Philip Morris's senior lawyer] and [Matt Winokur, its director
of regulatory affairs] for comments." "We decided to hold" Arise's
next conference in Europe, it continued, because of "positive European
media coverage". Philip Morris had appointed a London PR agency to run
the media operation, set up Arise's secretariat and help to recruit new members.
Arise's "major spending authorisation and approval would be handled by
an 'informal' Budget Committee involving PM, Rothmans and possibly RJR and BAT".
The memo suggests Arise was run not by eminent scientists but by eminent tobacco
companies. This impression is reinforced by another document in the tobacco
archive, which explains how the group began. "In 1988 the US Surgeon General
said: 'Nicotine was as addictive as heroin or cocaine.' The industry responded.
A group of academics was identified and called together to: - review the science
of substance abuse, - separate nicotine from these substances".
I sent a list of questions to Warburton, but he told me that he did not have
time to answer them. Reading University replied that it knew Warburton's work
had been sponsored by the tobacco companies. Indeed, the university itself had
received over £300,000 from Arise, but "from the university's standpoint,
the source of funding for Arise has always been vague". It revealed that
"Professor Warburton and the University of Reading were in receipt of BAT
research funding between 1995 and 2003". But at no time had it questioned
this funding or sought to oblige Warburton to declare his interests in academic
papers. Astonishingly, it suggested that this would amount to "censorship"
and "restricting academic freedom".
The journal Psychopharmacology told me it was unaware Warburton had been taking
money from tobacco firms. "It is an author's responsibility to disclose
sources of funding, and widely understood that journals themselves do not expect
to police this declaration." After a long career untroubled by questions
about his interests or professional ethics, Warburton retired in 2003. He still
lectures at Reading as an emeritus professor.
How much more science is being published in academic journals with
undeclared interests like these? How many more media campaigns against "overregulation",
the "compensation culture" or "unfounded public fears" have
been secretly funded and steered by corporations? How many more undeclared recipients
of corporate money have been appearing on the Today programme, providing free
public relations for their sponsors? This case suggests that academia and the
media have failed dismally to exercise sufficient scepticism. Surely there is
one obvious question with which every journal and every journalist should begin.
"Who's funding you?"