Five internationally renowned scientists plan to sue prominent newspaper The Times, following publication of a story which suggested they’d relied on tobacco companies to carry out research into vaping – something which they vehemently deny.
“My life’s work has been built on helping reduce the death toll from tobacco smoking,” said Professor Karl Fagerstrom. “Yet The Times has portrayed me and my colleagues as hirelings of big tobacco.”
Professor David Sweanor of the Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics at the University of Ottawa, added: “My reputation has been trashed by The Times. Despite ample evidence of my independence, it claimed that I am beholden to big tobacco companies.”
The saga began when The Times published a story on 12 October 2016 which accused David Nutt, Clive Bates, David Sweanor, Riccardo Polosa and Karl Fagerström of using funds provided by the tobacco industry.
This accusation appeared to be an effort to undermine the legitimacy of a study into e-cigarettes. The five scientists, all prominent anti-smoking campaigners, are disgusted at having their characters sullied with incorrect information in order to mislead the public.
Vaping a safer alternative to tobacco
Professor Sweanor is a long-standing activist against Big Tobacco, who has spent his career filing, and winning lawsuits against the industry; while Professor Fagerstrom was accused of accepting money for research in e-cigarettes, despite having never carried out research on the subject.
For the men themselves, the anger originates not just from the article’s personal attack, but also the message it sends out to the public from a well-respected publication.
“The Times should examine carefully its motives for this scurrilous attack,” said David Nutt, lead author of the study and director of the Neuropsychopharmacology Unit in the Division of Brain Sciences at Imperial College London.
“Reducing the uptake of safer tobacco alternatives such as e-cigarettes will inevitably result in more deaths from real cigarettes, currently the biggest killer in the world today. Is this really what they want?”
Switching to e-cigarettes can improve health
The paper also claimed that Cancer Research UK had condemned the scientists for taking funds from a disreputable source – a claim that is vigorously denied by George Butterworth, the Policy and Campaigns Manager at the charity.
Despite posting a full page apology for the inaccuracy of the article, the Times has so far only apologised directly to one of the five scientists, resulting in the accused hiring libel specialists at law firm Lewis Silkin to represent them should the case progress to court.
While this issue mainly concerns negligent journalism, it is also important to take into account the effect misinformation can have in a world where smokers facing declining health are given false ideological obstacles between themselves and a switch to vaping, a practice that has been found to be healthier than traditional cigarettes – and one that will hopefully lead to a healthier population and a decline in heart disease and lung cancer.