From the sharp mind of Dr. Sally Satel…
People Who Get Paid By Big Tobacco Should Be Able To Advise The FDA
A few weeks ago the FDA was forced to remove four researchers from its influential Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee (TPSAC). The committee plays a crucial role in providing advice, information and recommendations to the FDA commissioner on the science of tobacco and its implications for regulation.
The TPSAC shake-up came at the order of federal judge Richard J. Leon of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. Judge Leon concluded that select committee members, including the chairman, were so heavily beset by conflicts of interest that they could not be trusted to deploy sound scientific judgment.
The judge’s decision stemmed from a 2010 complaint filed by tobacco companies Lorillard American and Reynolds American. The complaint was aimed partly at unseating specific TPSAC members who, the companies argued, had “conflicts of interest” by virtue of the millions of dollars in grant money, consulting fees, and expert witness work they collectively received over the years from pharmaceutical companies, also called sponsors.
Because those pharmaceutical companies make and market anti-smoking aids such as nicotine patches, gum, and an anti-smoking medication, Chantix, the plaintiffs reasoned that any advisor who accepts their funding will likely be biased against tobacco interests.
Lorillard and Reynolds prevailed last July when Judge Leon ruled that four members’ financial conflicts of interest represented a violation of federal ethics law. He also ruled that a report on menthol cigarettes by TPSAC (which was the actual focus of the lawsuit) could not be relied upon by FDA. The members’ financial ties, according to the judge, “irrevocably tainted [the Advisory Committee’s] very composition and its work product [is] at a minimum, suspect, and, at worst, untrustworthy.”
While I agree that the membership of TPSAC was problematic, my reason is entirely different from Judge Leon’s. In my view, the real problem with the committee make-up was not, as the Judge indicated, that members receiving support from pharmaceutical companies were reflexively conflicted. But rather that TPSAC had initially welcomed the service of those members while barring entry to any investigator who accepted support from tobacco interests (or who did so within the 18-month period prior to applying for membership.)
The assumption behind the FDA’s inconsistent policy, of course, is based on the misconception that merely accepting financial support from tobacco interests – but never from pharmaceutical interests, mind you –automatically disables one’s capacity to make sound, evidence-based decisions surrounding tobacco regulation.
This is an indefensible double standard on the part of a federal agency. I think it derives from the misbegotten conceit that anyone who accept funding from tobacco sponsors is somehow pro-smoking. In reality, most researchers who accept grants from tobacco interests are working just as hard to reduce smoking. It’s just that their topic of study is smokeless tobacco (and, I hope soon, e-cigarettes whose nicotine comes from tobacco) as a route to smoking cessation. In this context, being “pro-tobacco” is perfectly consistent with advancing public health.
Of particular interest is Swedish snus, a style of smokeless tobacco available in the U.S. Smokeless tobacco is estimated to be 99% less harmful than smoking. The Swedish version, which is conveniently available in spit-less teabag-like pouches, has been the subject of over two decades of epidemiological data. (less is available about the American versions, though it shows similar results). Thanks to its use Sweden now has the lowest rate of smoking-related diseases in Europe, the world’s lowest rate of lung cancer in males, and one of the lowest mouth cancer rates in the EU.
Research on smokeless tobacco is an important public health contribution. Consider examples of the investigations made possible by grants from tobacco manufacturers to researchers’ universities or to the scientists themselves: the danger of misinformation that might convince smokeless tobacco users to switch to smoking conducted by an oral pathologist at the University of Louisville and a researcher at the University of Alberta; the value of tobacco harm reduction by workers at the University of Texas, Houston; the use of smokeless (“snus”) as an effective method to quit smoking; the relationship of smokeless tobacco to lung cancer by investigators at the University of Surrey, UK; among others.
Conflict of interest is a vexing subject. Policies are generally borne of much soul-searching, hand-wringing and hair-splitting and often have unintended consequences. To be sure, all agencies want to insulate their advisors from personal and professional loyalties or other factors that might erode a neutral stance toward the data.
But it is easy to go too far in the pursuit of purity. In fact, many have urged a zero-tolerance policy for advisory committee members and commercial ties. This would be a disaster.
A no-ties rule would force the FDA to recruit its outside s from a far smaller pool of experts.“You’d be getting the second best and the almost brightest,” says Peter Pitts, former Associate Commissioner for External Relations at the FDA and policy adviser to the Commissioner. A 2007 study involving 124 members participating in 16 FDA advisory meetings, found that members who received high levels of support from pharmaceutical companies had more years of experience in their fields and more contributions to peer-reviewed literature compared to members who were funding-free.
Evidence suggesting that funding increases risk of bias in members’ decision-making is mixed. A 2006 paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), meanwhile, found that excluding advisory committee members and voting consultants with conflicts would not have altered the overall vote outcome at any meeting studied.The FDA re-analyzed the JAMA data and found that members with financial ties to companies actually tend to vote against the financial interest of those companies.
Another 2014 study, which looked at over 15,000 FDA advisory committee members’ votes between 1997 and 2011, painted a more complex picture. With about half of all meetings had at least one participant with such a financial interest, the data showed that members with connections to one company, or sponsor, are somewhat more likely to vote for approval (63 percent) than members with no attachments to a sponsor (a 52 percent chance). This modest preference rose to 84 percent if the member served on the company’s board or steering committee.
More intriguing was the observation that the voting behavior of members with links to more than one company, including board membership, was comparable to colleagues without any ties. This suggests that support from multiple sources cancels out preferences for a given sponsor. It also suggests that perhaps the FDA should require sole-sponsored members or, at the very least, sponsor board members to recuse themselves from voting (but not from group deliberation) when that company’s product is under consideration.
As for TPSAC, it must follow Judge Leon’s order. But a longer view of conflict of interest and advisory practices should lead to a more inclusive scenario wherein TPSAC welcomes any talented investigator who is wedded to norms of scientific fair play and is mature enough to suppress bias. This extends to investigators with financial relationships of all kinds – including tobacco interests. (Yes, there should be some exceptions: See here for conflicts with “direct and predictable effects.”)
The emphasis on members’ capacities to adopt a neutral stance is imperative. It highlights the fact that an advisor’s judgment is just as prone to collapse, if not more prone to falter, under the weight of a strong normative bias, that is, how one thinks health policy should work. I refer here, specifically, to members’ views on “tobacco harm reduction.”
Advocates of harm reduction advance a pragmatic stance that tolerates the use of nicotine in the form of smokeless tobacco or electronic cigarettes because doing so greatly minimizes the harm of smoking.
It’s worth special mention here that the investigators who pioneered the study of tobacco harm reduction, such as those working on smokeless tobacco, were consistently refused research support from government agencies. Thus, they were compelled to ask the industry for funding. Investigating innovative methods to reduce the toll of smoking has thus far mainly relied on industry funding.
Anti-harm reductionists, also called tobacco prohibitionists, see no virtue in making nicotine use less harmful; only complete abstinence is acceptable to them. “Given the long history of tobacco industry deception, such advocates assert that there can be no room for compromise when it comes to a product in which Big Tobacco has any interest,” wrote Amy Friedman and Ronald Bayer, both of Columbia University’s School of Public Health, in Science last January. A strong anti-harm reduction mind-set could easily sway members’ assessment of the risk of smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes.
If TPSAC were to have pro- and anti-harm reductionists among its members, the advisory committees would have to function as a “team of rivals.” And it would be open for anyone to see. Thanks to federal sunshine laws, commercial ties are made public and FDA advisory meetings are open to the public; anyone can observe the proceedings. Members of the media, financial analysts, patient groups, individuals, and politicians can attend TPSAC meetings which are recorded and transcribed for the public. Sources of funding are public too.
The public’s confidence in the recommendations of federal advisory committees is vital to the functioning of governmental institutions. Judge Leon was right to conclude that the committee was poorly composed, but that was because it was exclusionary, not because members accepting support from pharmaceutical companies were necessarily conflicted. Instead, both the judge and the FDA subscribed to the myth that commercial ties are inevitably corrupting. By operating under this facile conclusion, the FDA sealed itself off from a group of scientists whose knowledge and perspectives are critical to the development of wise tobacco regulation.
Dr. Satel has served as an expert witness in tobacco litigation.