Win for experts as smear campaign fails

Five top experts in the field of tobacco harm reduction have won a grovelling apology from a major UK newspaper that had accused them of being “tainted by the influence of tobacco industry funding”.

The formerly respected Times had published three articles in October defaming Clive Bates, David Sweanor, David Nutt, Riccardo Polosa and Karl Fagerström. All five are leading figures in tobacco control research and internationally respected.

The newspaper, owned like The Sun by controversial tycoon Rupert Murdoch, operates behind a paywall, but rival rag The Guardian gleefully reported the details of the apology published in The Times in early November – just a couple of days before the start of the WHO’s global conference on tobacco control in India.

The newspaper had already apologised to one scientist named in reports, Clive Bates. However, four others, including the former government adviser David Nutt, said they would sue for defamation. They have not decided whether to abandon the lawsuit following the apology.

Dr Nutt was quoted as saying he welcomed the apology but “criticised the ‘commercial interests and ideologues” he said were behind the article.

“’We are pleased that the Times has capitulated on this matter, but would have been happier if it had not indulged in this reckless reporting, which smeared the reputations of leading anti-tobacco academics,’ he said.

“’The battle to reduce the harm from tobacco is gradually being won, but it is being fought against commercial interests and ideologues like those who were behind these articles.”

David Sweanor, who works at the Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics at the University of Ottawa, told The Guardian the group had not yet decided whether to continue with the defamation suit. Despite what he described as lasting damage to his reputation, Sweanor said the main priority was moving on.

“The interest is in simply getting it behind us,” he said. “My view is that I would just let it go. You just have to move on and do good work, and people forget the bit of character assassination.”

Speculation is growing that the timing of such a baseless smear – just before a global conference hosted by an increasingly defensive and desperate WHO – is hardly likely to be coincidental.

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