Big Tobacco, Small Minds

Is your retirement account invested in the stock market through a common S&P 500 indexed mutual fund? Does your company’s 401K hold shares in any large, publicly-traded corporation? Well guess what. If you opposed lockdowns, you’re guilty of cynically profiteering off of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 victims. You’re also likely a dupe of the fossil fuel industry, and a financial agent of Big Tobacco – which means that your opinions on the harms of lockdowns should be discounted and you should probably just go ahead and exile yourself from polite society.

Or at least that’s the claim of a series of recent commentaries in a leading medical journal, The BMJ.

Last month this journal, which is published by the British Medical Association, published a deranged smear against AIER over our involvement in the conference that produced the Great Barrington Declaration. Authored by Professors Gavin Yamey and David Gorski, along with graduate student Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, the commentary asserts that “AIER is funded through an investment fund that itself owns shares in tobacco companies and many organizations that stood to lose enormous amounts of money if the United States were to have enacted further lockdowns in 2020.” “This represents a large intellectual and financial [Conflict of Interest] for the AIER,” the authors continue, implying that our principled stance against lockdowns was really just a greedy ploy to increase the bottom line of tobacco companies.  Far from an aberration caused by lax editorial oversight, the BMJ has now repeatedly published attacks by this same trio of authors, or some combination thereof, as they advance similar allegations of financial conspiracy by AIER and the GBD.

On what basis, then, do Yamey et al stake their claim? It comes from an intentional misrepresentation of AIER’s finances. Our assets are invested and independently managed by our financial subsidiary. Some of those assets are invested in market-indexed mutual funds which, in turn, contain stocks in a diversified array of companies. Just like your company’s 401K or your Roth IRA, those assets include small percentages of stocks of large publicly traded firms like Chevron, Exxon-Mobil, and Philip Morris. And that, apparently, makes us “funded” by Big Oil and Big Tobacco in the eyes of the BMJ authors.

The claim that simple stock ownership through a mutual fund somehow places you on the payroll of Big Tobacco and Big Oil would be risible in any other circumstance.

Indeed, it is the BMJ’s own published policy to specifically exclude “mutual funds or other situations in which the person is not in a position to control investment decisions” from its financial conflict of interest reporting requirements in published scientific research. This exclusion stems from a longstanding convention in the scientific community. The fact that you have a standard retirement account is not disqualifying of your research, because these instruments are specifically designed to maintain diversified and independently managed investments. The National Institutes of Health and most other agencies involved in medical research have similar exemptions for mutual funds and related investment vehicles. Stated differently, a mutual fund is specifically designed to ensure the long-term stability and growth of the portfolio as a whole – not to induce and manipulate short-term gains for a couple of individual stocks among the hundreds of companies that it holds.

In publishing the attacks on AIER’s finances by Yamey, Gorski, and Meyerowitz-Katz, The BMJ accordingly violated its own policy standards for financial conflict of interest reporting. When I contacted one of its editors, Adrian Aldcroft, to express concerns about this blatant disregard of scientific norms and publishing ethics in his journal, he responded dismissively. Disregarding his own journal’s policy, Aldcroft reiterated Yamey et al’s charge: “you do not deny that AIER is funded via an investment fund that holds shares in many corporations including tobacco companies.” When I pointed out that it was both absurd and patently offensive to accuse us of profiteering on behalf of tobacco companies over our criticism of the COVID-19 lockdowns, he answered that this was simply the “the opinion of the authors” even though the trio had explicitly characterized them in their published commentary as statements of fact.

In addition to shirking their own policies, the BMJ’s actions have made it clear that its editors countenance and even encourage the brand of scurrilous conspiracy-mongering that has come to typify Yamey, Gorski, and Meyerowitz-Katz’s COVID-19 commentary. Unfortunately, the underlying reasons may include a classic case of academic nepotism. Yamey is a protégé of Kamran Abbasi, the editor in chief of The BMJ and an outspoken advocate of the Covid-19 lockdowns. When one of Yamey and Gorski’s earlier attacks in The BMJ came under scrutiny for falsely describing the GBD as being “funded” by “billionaires aligned with industry” last fall, Abbasi rushed to his defense on Twitter and described it as “well argued and courageous comment.” Around the same time, The BMJ was forced to issue a retraction to Yamey and Gorski’s allegation about billionaire funding.

This curious situation is further compounded by a stunning hypocrisy. The BMJ appears to only selectively exempt its contributors from its own financial standards, because it turns out that one of the authors of the attack on AIER has a far more direct connection to Big Tobacco than minor and indirect stock market investments.

Professor Yamey is currently employed at Duke University. Duke was famously founded out of the fortune of its namesake, tobacco baron James Buchanan Duke. Mr. Duke’s tobacco fortune provided the seed money that turned the university into a renowned research center. Duke’s tobacco-fueled endowment grew with the campus, and is now worth over $12 billion dollars.

While we should not begrudge Professor Yamey’s employer for its strong fiscal situation, we may legitimately ask: Is it not true that what’s good for the goose is also good for the gander?

I replied to Aldcroft and his co-editors with a simple inquiry. If The BMJ was willing to impugn the integrity of AIER on account of common and tangential investments in an indexed stock fund, would it also be willing to hold Professor Yamey to account as a beneficiary of a far more substantial and direct link to Big Tobacco?

One might even go so far as to point out a tangible link between lockdown advocacy and tobacco industry profits. Aside from failing to stem the tide of COVID-19, lockdowns imposed immense public health harms on society at large. Among the best-documented of these harms was a pronounced rise in tobacco consumption among youths and in vulnerable and low-income communities. Whether through depression, despair, or even boredom, people responded to the lockdowns by smoking more – a fact that is now attested in dozens of scientific studies, newspaper accounts, and even published papers in the BMJ. It is not difficult to discern that the lockdown-induced uptick in smoking rates will have deleterious public health consequences for decades to come.

In light of these facts, would it be fair to suggest that Professor Yamey’s own medical ethics are financially compromised by his employer’s direct and substantial financial connections to one of the largest tobacco fortunes in United States history? Would it be fair to similarly impugn the ethics of Professor Gorski and Mr. Meyerowitz-Katz by association, seeing as they have collaborated extensively with Yamey on issues related to COVID-19? Is this same trio’s aggressive, public advocacy of lockdowns in academic journals, popular outlets, and social media really just a cynical cover for a quest to drive cigarette sales? I suspect that all three would object to this characterization, even though it employs the same logic that they have used to defame AIER through much weaker and smaller financial connections to tobacco.

In a peculiar turn, The BMJ’s editors had no answer to my query. Neither do Yamey, Gorski, or Meyerowitz-Katz. Medice, cura te ipsum indeed.

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