Inhale Scholarly Journal Content Marketing

July 29, 2021

Dominant e-cigarette maker Juul demonstrates content marketing can be used to address even the thorniest of problems—just buy a lot of story opportunities. The American Prospect reports, “Juul: Taking Academic Corruption to a New Level.” After vaping was shown to cause illness in 2019, Juul’s previously lofty fortunes plummeted. Its blatant marketing to teens did not help its standing. Now the FDA is considering whether to ban the sale of e-cigarettes in the US altogether. Naturally, Juul is investing millions to help it decide. There are the traditional lobbying efforts of course. Then there is the wholesale buying out of an “academic” journal. Reporter David Dayen cites a recent New York Times article as he writes:

“Juul, the Times reports, ‘paid $51,000 to have the entire May/June issue of the American Journal of Health Behavior devoted to publishing 11 studies funded by the company offering evidence that Juul products help smokers quit.’ The corruption of academic research is not a new subject. Corporations fund third-party studies and benefit from ‘independent’ validation of their perspectives all the time. But this is a new wrinkle. Juul didn’t just front money for a couple of academic papers; it bought an entire edition of the American Journal of Health Behavior (AJHB), which it can then point to as “proof” that its product has a public-health benefit, the key question currently before the FDA. And the more you look at this story, the stranger it gets. The $51,000 fee included $6,500 to unlock the entire journal for public access—so you can read the entire special 219-page Juul issue here. It’s fascinating. There are 26 named co-authors on the 11 studies. According to the ‘Conflict of Interest’ statements associated with them, 18 of the co-authors are either current full-time employees of Juul, or were full-time employees at the time they conducted the research. Five others are consultants with Pinney Associates, working ‘on an exclusive basis to Juul Labs.’ And the final three, who co-authored one of the 11 studies, are employees of the Centre for Substance Use Research, an ‘independent’ consultancy that designed that study under a contract with … Juul Labs.”

One of those Pinney Associates consultants also acted as the special issue’s internal editor and papers coordinator. “Independent” they say—I do not think that word means what they think it means. Readers will not be surprised the articles overwhelmingly support the notion e-cigarettes are a good thing because they shift smokers away from “combustible tobacco products,” providing an “aid to public health.” I suppose we are to accept all those vaping illnesses because they do not affect bystanders? The articles fail to mention their primary money maker: luring in a wealth of new nicotine addicts.

Daven also calls out the American Journal of Health Behavior for its part in the scheme. Though the journal touts its ethical guidelines, its practice of charging authors to publish would seem to encourage companies to buy up its pages to spread (mis)information. In the eyes of the law, all of this is just fine as long as the journal “adequately” discloses articles’ sponsorship. To Daven, though, pay-to-publish delivers a series of swindles. He writes:

“Academics are desperate to publish in journals to prove to their universities that they are working diligently. Corporations recognize the opportunity to underwrite research and produce independent validation of their goals. And they turn around and use that research to persuade policymakers, who presume themselves sophisticated about spotting fake research, but probably are not.”

And that is the why companies pursue these projects in the first place—too many decision makers are willing to take the word of what looks like an authority, no matter what disclosures are attached. The Juul issue appears to have been a bridge too far for at least some of the journal’s editorial board members, for the Times reports three of them resigned after the propaganda was produced. Let us hope they do not give these articles much weight as they make their decision.

Cynthia Murrell, July 29, 2021

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