Do conflicts of interest matter? 

The federal panel helping craft tobacco regulation includes scientists in the pay of drug makers who make smoking-cessation drugs — including one who holds a patent for a nicotine chewing gum. Considering that the products they are helping to regulate include Camel Orbs, which are like tobacco-nicotine breath mints, the nicotine-gum financial interests of the panel members seems pretty relevant. I wrote on this a month back, and a left-leaning ethics group has called for an investigation.

In this context, Jacob Sullum at Reason magazine — who is anti- anti-smoking — posits that conflicts of interest don’t really matter that much.

[A]s someone who is still accused of being a tobacco industry flack based on a reprint fee that R.J. Reynolds paid me 16 years ago, I am skeptical of the implication that people like Benowitz and Henningfield take the positions they do because of their financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry. Although strict regulation (or outright prohibition) of nonpharmaceutical cigarette alternatives clearly would benefit the drug companies, there is no need to speculate about financial motives, since tobacco control scientists (and public health academics generally) are, by and large, ideologically predisposed to favor more government intervention.

(Another Reason writer, Radley Balko, also downplayed the importance of funding conflicts regarding a study, paid for by lesbian advocacy groups, suggesting that Kids of lesbians have fewer behavioral problems.)

This strikes a nerve with me, because much of what I do involves exposing conflicts of interest. I think Sullum is correct that experts’ ideological and often unthinking predisposition towards big government is the most important bias involved here. But I think Sullum doesn’t quite characterize the opposing view fairly here: “the implication that people … take the positions they do because of their financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry.”

I think conflicts of interest are rarely about bribery or outright self-serving corruption. They are subtler — often subconscious or indirect. The scientists are simply more familiar with the drug industry’s argument than in the tobacco industry’s argument — and thus they are more sympathetic to the drug industry. Getting paid by someone often puts a warm and fuzzy feeling in your heart when you think of them, and so the bias can be entirely emotional and subconscious.

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Timothy P. Carney

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