How tobacco, pharmaceutical, food, mining, chemical and alcohol companies influence health research

Lighting up. Photo: Getty Images
  • A University of Sydney study found that much industry research is not focused on improving public health.
  • Medical industry prefers to fund research on drugs and devices; food industry prefers research on single nutrients
  • Identified attempt to shift focus from sugar to sedentary behaviour as cause of obesity.

An Australian study has found that tactics used by tobacco, pharmaceutical, food, mining, chemical and alcohol companies serve to drive scientific research questions away from those most relevant to public health.

Members of the Evidence, Policy and Influence Collaborative from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre looked at corporate influence on research agendas across different fields.

The University of Sydney study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that of 36 articles identified, 19 demonstrated that industry tends to prioritise lines of inquiry that focus on products, processes or activities that can be commercialised and marketed.

The medical industry tends to fund research on products with the potential to generate revenue such as drugs and devices.

And food industry-sponsored research focuses on single nutrients rather than dietary patterns, allowing companies to market manufactured products containing certain nutrients as beneficial to health.

“Neither are necessarily in the best interests of individuals or society, and potentially limits the scope of public health policies derived from this research,” says lead author Dr Alice Fabbri, a postdoctoral research fellow in the University of Sydney School of Pharmacy.

An additional seven studies analysed internal industry documents from the tobacco, alcohol, sugar and mining industries, providing insight into strategies used by industry to reshape entire fields of research.

“Key strategies include establishing research agendas that support industry policy positions and protect industry from litigation, as well as disseminating industry research agendas by engaging non-industry stakeholders through conferences, committees and other joint initiatives,” says Dr Fabbri.

The final 10 studies explored researcher experiences and perceptions of the influence of industry funding on research agendas.

“Receiving funding from industry was associated with a tendency to shift research agendas towards more applied research with commercial application,” says Dr Fabbri.

“However, there were mixed views on the role industry should play in shaping research agendas, which tended to be aligned with the acceptance of industry funding or not.”

A review of food company-funded research identified a lack of transparency, with just two companies analysed providing sufficient detail for analysis — Coca-Cola and the Mars Center for Cocoa Health Science.

More than 40% of research focused on physical activity along with a focus on single nutrient-specific questions.

The idea is to shift attention from the role of sugar-sweetened beverages in obesity to the role of sedentary behaviour.

Co-author Lisa Bero says the the findings demonstrate the need for strategies to limit commercial biases in research.

“While it is self-evident industries will fund research on their own products or to support their own positions, these are not always aligned with public health,” says Professor Bero.

“Disclosure policies must be expanded to increase transparency about the role industry plays in shaping research questions or promoting some research questions and discouraging others.

“Increased funding for independent research would also counteract corporate influence, as would stricter guidelines regulating interaction with commercial entities.

“Individual researchers could also learn to recognise when genuine commitments to advance research are being hijacked by industry agendas and avoid participating in such initiatives.”

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.