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Tobacco Scientist's Election Tars Academy's Image

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Science  13 Jan 2012:
Vol. 335, Issue 6065, pp. 153-154
DOI: 10.1126/science.335.6065.153
What a drag.

China is home to 300 million smokers—the world's largest total—and a newly minted academician who studies “low-tar”cigarettes.


BEIJING—Within hours of the election of Xie Jianping to the prestigious Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE) on 8 December, the Internet here was buzzing with wild accusations. On the popular microblog Tencent Weibo, Liu Zhifeng got an early jump, questioning the anointment of a scientist whose research, he charged, is used “to more effectively kill people.”

Prominent researchers weighed in, too. “I feel ashamed,” CAE academician and food-safety expert Chen Junshi declared on his blog. Former health vice minister Wang Longde hinted to the Beijing Times that Xie, a deputy director of the Zhengzhou Tobacco Research Institute (ZTRI) who studies “low-tar” cigarettes, was complicit in deceptive tobacco marketing—in clear violation of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), an international treaty that China ratified in 2005. And Wang Ke'an, director of the Think Tank Research Center for Health Development here and former president of the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine, penned an angry letter to CAE. Xie's research, Wang told Science, “lacks a scientific foundation and misleads the public.” Xie did not respond to phone or e-mail requests for comment.

Knowing the risks?

Critics allege that industry research has especially misled educated Chinese about the health effects of “low-tar” cigarettes.


Xie's election has become a touchstone for broad unease over the Chinese tobacco industry's encroachment in science. Tensions are running high over the government's support for tobacco research centers—ZTRI is owned by China National Tobacco Corp. (CNTC)—and for its backing of research papers on low-tar and “reduced-harm” products.

In some ways, China is restaging a battle that has already played out in the West. “This is not new,” says epidemiologist Armando Peruga of the World Health Organization's (WHO's) Tobacco Free Initiative. For decades, he says, “the tobacco industry has been researching ways to make their products appear less harmful than they are.” In the United States, leaked documents and a Justice Department lawsuit against the major tobacco companies in the 1990s put researchers and universities accepting tobacco money in the hot seat (Science, 26 April 1996, p. 488). A decade later, controversy flared over research into “reduced-harm” products, again because of industry involvement (Science, 7 January 2005, p. 36). “That's exactly what's happening in China now,” says cardiologist Stanton Glantz of the University of California, San Francisco.

This time the stakes are higher. China is home to 300 million smokers—more than any other country in the world. In 2010, fully 53% of men aged 15 to 69 smoked. Here, the same entity responsible for tobacco control—the government—is also the country's largest cigarette manufacturer. CNTC is operated by the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, and together the two bodies produce hundreds of cigarette brands, from the ubiquitous Double Happiness to the upmarket Chunghwa. They have also jointly spearheaded industry investment in science. “In other countries,” Wang says, governments “do not set aside money for this sort of research.”

While China's ratification of the FCTC was a milestone, sources say the government is increasingly torn between concern over the health and economic costs of smoking and allegiance to the tobacco industry, which pulled in $79 billion in revenue in 2010. “The industry holds tremendous clout because of the economics of tobacco in China,” says Jonathan Samet, director of the Institute for Global Health at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. And CNTC's influence has allowed it to outdo even the powerful multinationals in some aspects of its campaign. Says Glantz: “The claims that are being made [in China] are way, way, way more aggressive than anything that have been made in the U.S.”

Assault on science

In a cramped second-floor office tucked in an alley here, Yang Gonghuan glares at photos of scientists on her computer screen—scientists she believes have all accepted funding or favors from the tobacco industry. The tireless former deputy director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, now a professor at Peking Union Medical College's School of Basic Medicine, has become a critical figure in the controversy over Xie's election. Last month, she published two lengthy blog posts retracing the history of tobacco-industry funding of science in China. CNTC and the tobacco administration, she says, “have spent a lot of effort doing this sort of public relations.”

Now Yang's trying to counter act what she sees as an assault on science. Yang is no stranger to the Chinese tobacco industry. She had spent years looking at secondhand smoke and other issues before setting out to probe its research investments. Still, she was surprised at the brazenness of what she dredged up. “Abroad, companies know these activities are illegal, so they do it in secret,” Yang says. “Here, all of the materials are made public.”


Former Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention deputy director Yang Gonghuan has spent years probing the tobacco industry's investments in science.


She knew that CNTC and its provincial affiliates had long used questionable marketing tactics, such as sponsoring elementary schools and university scholarships. (A 2010 Chinese CDC report found that more than 100 elementary schools bore the names of tobacco companies.) But until recently, such tactics didn't extend to research. Then in 1996, in anticipation of the release of a WHO study on the health effects of secondhand smoke, Philip Morris organized representatives of the major Asian tobacco companies into the Asian Regional Tobacco Industry Scientists Team. The Asian companies “were mostly state monopolies and had a different attitude than the Western multinationals had about what they could and couldn't say in terms of science,” Glantz says. “While they generally didn't go around saying smoking was killing people, the multi nationals were afraid that they might admit that smoking was bad.”

But the real impetus for industry funding of research, Yang discovered, came in 2001, as China considered signing the FCTC. Much as the publication of a paper linking smoking to cancer prompted the U.S. tobacco industry to set up the Council for Tobacco Research in 1954, the convention prodded China's tobacco industry to mobilize. Over the next 5 years, a working group centered at Yunnan Tobacco Science Research Institute in Kunming held regular conferences to develop a counterattack. In 2003, the tobacco administration adopted the China Cigarette Science and Technology Outline, which recommends supplementing the funding of institutes like ZTRI. The following year, the administration hosted a forum on low-tar and “low-hazard” cigarettes that drew attendees from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

By then, the industry had formulated research goals. Yang brandishes a copy of a 442-page report published by the Kunming institute soon after the FCTC took effect in January 2006, which details “counter-measures” to the convention. In reaction to Article 11, which bans labeling such as “low-tar” and “light,” the group recommended that industry-funded research develop separate standards.

Such prescriptions have come with hefty increases in funding and research output. In 2009, the state-owned industry spent over $48 million on research. In the meantime, Glantz and Gan Quan, then a postdoc at the University of California, Santa Cruz, searched PubMed, Web of Science, and China National Knowledge Infrastructure for papers on tobacco and smoking by authors in mainland China. Papers published or sponsored by tobacco companies, they found, more than quadrupled from 576 between 1982 and 1987 to 4810 between 2002 and 2007. More tellingly, over the same period the proportion of those papers involving academic researchers leapt from 6% to 48%. And because many Chinese journals don't require conflict-of-interest disclosures, says Gan, now an adviser to the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease here, “this could be a serious underestimate.”

Among those engaging with the industry are some of China's leading science institutes. CAS, for example, operates a joint Ph.D. program with ZTRI on tobacco chemistry. Also on the list is the University of Science and Technology in Hefei; its Tobacco and Health Research Center has close ties to CNTC. The Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, meanwhile, jointly administers the Qingzhou Tobacco Research Institute with CNTC.

Yang believes the proliferation of industry-backed research has influenced public perceptions. In China's 2010 Global Adult Tobacco Survey, which was conducted by the Chinese CDC for WHO, 86% of adults interviewed either did not know or did not properly understand that low-tar cigarettes are just as harmful as regular cigarettes. For Yang, who was the survey's principal investigator, the breakdown of that data is even more revealing: Adults with a college education or higher were more than twice as likely to have an incorrect understanding of the health effects of low-tar cigarettes as those who had attended primary school or less. “They've been exposed to misleading propaganda,” Yang explains.

Such ideas resurfaced in the debate over Xie's election. “Low-tar and harm reduction [research] is a necessary step in resolving our smoking problem,” CAE member Wei Fusheng told Nanjing Daily in explaining why he voted for Xie. And yet, Yang says, the uproar gives cause for hope. In 1997, when CAE elected Xie's mentor—ZTRI scientist Zhu Zunquan—no one publicly objected, she points out. Now, she says, awareness is growing. She opens an e-mail from Liu, the blogger who kicked off the election debate. “He's just an average Netizen,” she says with approval.

Yang and others are prodding CAE to strip Xie of his academician title. Although CAE has never taken that step, CAS has twice struck academicians from its rolls. Regardless of how Xie's drama plays out, Yang hopes that the outcry will spur the Chinese government to honor its FCTC commitment.

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