Smoke Signals

Smoke Signals

Philip Morris speaks at and promotes an obscure conference on lung disease

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is one of the most wretched tobacco-caused illnesses. Chris Singshinsuk/Shutterstock

Over the past decade, every researcher’s email inbox has been crammed daily with junk from what have come to be known as predatory journals and conferences. Last week I had 21 offers to send my non-existent research to open-access journals from everything from plant biology, metallurgy and human resource management, plus four conferences offering splendid opportunities to showcase my yet-to-be-started work in drug discovery and transplantation.

These emails want you to part with big money to have them publish your paper, sometimes within days, or attend a world conference that sounds like the real deal if you came down in a recent shower. I block and then delete them all, but they change addresses and keep pouring in, often with inane opening lines like “refreshing greetings!”

This week my attention was drawn to a Philip Morris International website promoting the 3rd International Conference on Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease being held in Brisbane over two days this week. The program for the meeting showed just 19 speakers talking across two days, with a bonus of three posters I could look at as well.

This packed program was punctuated by a “group photo”, lunches, an awards ceremony as well as a closing ceremony for those who can’t get too many ceremonies. Exhausted delegates would be set free to “network” and have a refreshment break on at 3.30pm on day two.

Philip Morris International had a staff member on the program flying in all the way from Switzerland to talk in the coveted opening session about “Physiological measures and novel sputum biomarkers to distinguish subjects with mild to moderate COPD from asymptomatic current smokers, former smokers and never smokers.” He was also on the organising committee.

COPD specialists attending no doubt would have been fascinated to learn of Philip Morris’ research dedication to measuring and classifying people with COPD, since 90% of those with the disease are or have been smokers. The WHO’s Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease states that:

Cigarette smoking is by far the most commonly encountered risk factor for COPD.

And that:

In most countries, consultations for COPD greatly outnumbered consultations for asthma, pneumonia, lung and tracheal cancer, and tuberculosis.

Philip Morris is second only to the Chinese National Tobacco Company in selling the most cigarettes. So over the decades, uncounted millions of some of its best customers have acquired COPD from their addiction to its products.

People living with advanced COPD find their quality of life is often severely reduced, with ordinary tasks such as walking across a room or up a few steps being very difficult. The disease slowly suffocates people to death, sometime over long drawn-out months. It is the most wretched of tobacco-caused diseases.

This “international conference” was organised by conferenceseries.com which is owned by OMICS, one of the most criticised of all predatory conference organisers. If you Google “OMICS predatory” you are deluged with pages of information such as this, this and this. Reading through such pages you learn of the tiny attendances, the hidden charges (including a paper withdrawal charge if you change you mind), the use of unauthorised names to promote events and much more besides. You read many angry comments from people who have engaged with them.

A year or so ago, when I received an invitation to a junk conference in China, I noticed a colleague’s name and photo on the conference organising page and smelled a rat. He confirmed to me he knew nothing of the conference and that his name and photo had been used without permission.

A delegate to the Brisbane meeting told me:

yes, it was predatory and they phoned me frequently for me to pay the registration. They asked me to write letters of invitation for other speakers from overseas on my letterhead. I was invited so I got some concessions, and I was invited to give a talk a another local meeting in Brisbane so it all worked out for me – otherwise I wouldn’t have gone and likely won’t go again. There were probably 40-50 people.

I tweeted news of Philip Morris’ attendance and the European COPD Coalition replied saying:

A tobacco company speaking at a lung disease conference is a bit like a gun lobbyist speaking at a gunshot surgery forum.

The outstanding question for me in all this, is what on earth is Philip Morris trying to achieve by helping organise, attend, speak at and publicise a gnat-sized “conference” on COPD?

Tobacco companies have long sought to bring scientists into their web through unrestricted slush grants, consultancies, travel, lab support and speaking tours. By helping support scientific conferences such as that in Brisbane, it might hope that opportunities to “network” with potential recruits might arise.

Tobacco companies have run decades-long public narratives about how “more research is needed” and their hand-on-heart desire to develop reduced-risk products while they continue to do all they can to promote their staple standard products. Conferences like this may be a small brick in that wall.

If you’re a researcher and have found yourself at conferences like this, share your experiences below.

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