Stanton Glantz, one of the world’s best-known tobacco researchers, had everything going for him — a first-class brain, financial support, a tenured professorship and a passion for the task at hand. No scientist, it seemed, was more committed to reducing the death and disease caused by smoking
Glantz led the creation of an invaluable archive of tobacco-industry documents at the University of California at San Francisco, where he was a professor of medicine. He famously called attention to the risks of second-hand smoke, which helped turn public opinion against smoking. He inspired many.
“He was a hero of mine,” says Michael Siegel, a physician and tobacco control expert who worked with Glantz at UCSF.
Glantz is no longer a hero, not to Siegel and not to other critics who fought alongside him in the battle against smoking. They say that Glantz’s hard-line opposition to all things tobacco has led him to exaggerate the dangers and downplay the benefits of e-cigarettes, which have helped millions of smokers quit.
His bad science has enabled bad policy, which makes it harder for people to switch from deadly combustible cigarettes to vapes, which are safer although by no means entirely safe. (Young people, whose brains are still developing, should not smoke or vape.) Misinformation about vaping promulgated by Glantz and his allies has sure kept many people smoking. That’s tragic.
Undark, a web magazine about science, has just published my 5,000-word story about Glantz. (It was republished today by Mother Jones.) Please read the story, which goes into great detail about Glantz’s work. Undark editors carefully vetted the story and made it better, but their approach to journalism (“just-the-facts”) is more conservative than my own. So I want to offer a few additional thoughts here, in the form of a q-and-a.
Why write about Stanton Glantz?
Glantz, who is 75, remains the go-to scientist for the anti-vaping movement, even though he retired last year from UCSF.
I learned that earlier this year while researching a story about Bloomberg Philanthropies and e-cigarettes for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. I’d spoken to respected veterans of the anti-smoking movement (Steven Schroeder, Ken Warner, David Abrams and Siegel), who worried that bans on e-cigarettes would do more harm than good. So I asked a PR person at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids to recommend a scientist who had researched the dangers of vaping and supported efforts to ban flavored vapes. He sent me to Stan Glantz. I was surprised because this was after a prominent journal retracted a major, federally-funded paper about vaping and heart attacks by Glantz. Editors of scientific journals hate retracting papers; only about four of every 10,000 papers are retracted, according to this 2018 report in Science.
Even so, Glantz’s claims about the dangers of vaping continue to be cited in scientific journals and by the anti-vaping forces.
That said, the problem of misinformation goes way beyond Glantz. The outbreak of a lung disease called EVALI had nothing to do with vaping nicotine, it turns out. Nor did vaping increase Covid-19 risks. But Glantz is among the worst offenders.
Is his research that bad?
Unfortunately, it is. Glantz has made three big claims about vaping — that it is a “gateway” to smoking, that vaping does not help smokers to quit and that e-cigarettes increase the risk of heart attacks. All are unsupported by evidence. Sometimes these claims are embedded in the published versions of his research. More often they are made in press releases or on his blog.
His two heart attack studies were the most egregious. The Journal of the American Heart Association retracted a 2019 study after other scholars discovered that some heart attacks in the analysis took place before the victims began vaping. Glantz knew that, according to the journal, but claimed that the study offered “more evidence that e-cigs cause heart attacks.”
“There’s no way these are innocent mistakes,” says Brad Rodu, a professor of medicine at the University of Louisville whose work has been supported by the tobacco industry. “This is falsification.”
Just days ago, a 2018 study by Glantz linking e-cigarettes with heart attacks was refuted by a follow-up analysis in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine called “Re-Examining the Association Between E-Cigarette Use and Myocardial Infarction: A Cautionary Tale.”
Increasingly, former allies are going public with complaints about Glantz. During a webinar last month about conflicts of interest in tobacco research, Mike Cummings, a professor at the Medical University of South Carolina and longtime critic of the cigarette makers, said that academics as well as industry-backed researchers need to be held accountable for their work.
“We’re not calling out our colleagues who are polluting the science,” Cummings said. “I’ll call out Stan Glantz.”
What are the consequences of Glantz’s work?
In the memorable phrase of longtime anti-smoking activist David Sweanor, Glantz has become one of “Big Tobacco’s Little Helpers.
How so? The evidence is growing that banning e-cigarettes or raising taxes on them — the policies favored by Glantz and his allies — lead more people to keep smoking. So does misinformation about the dangers of vaping.
“The inevitable result,” Sweanor has said, “is that it is more likely that smokers will stick with deadly combustibles, more vapers will revert to smoking, smoking will decline more slowly than it otherwise would, and the lucrative cigarette trade will have again been protected from a disruptive threat.”
It’s a terrible irony that a scientist who made no secret of his contempt for cigarette companies has in the twilight of his career become their unwitting ally.
For more, please read the Undark story.