SPECTRUM Consortium

Industry arguments fuel public uncertainty about the health risks of harmful products, study finds

Arguments used by industry to dispute product-harm relationships are creating uncertainty about the health risks of harmful products, posing a significant challenge to public health.

14 January 2022

Alternative causation arguments are used by harmful product manufacturers to present alternative, misleading explanations for product harms in an effort to downplay their risk. The tobacco industry is well known for this strategy, promoting alternative causes for lung cancer in an effort to cast doubt about the link to smoking.

Led by SPECTRUM researchers, a new study used a novel method to investigate the effects of similar arguments by a range of harmful product manufacturers on the public.

Using real world statements

Study participants were provided with real world statements made by industry or industry-funded education charities on the harms associated with fossil fuels, alcohol, tobacco, and sugar sweetened beverages, or a corresponding example from an independent scientific or non-governmental agency.

Respondents, who didn’t know the source of the statements, were then asked about their certainty about the risk of the specific harm from that product.

The results found that exposure to industry sponsored messages significantly increases uncertainty or false certainty about products links with harms. This effect was greatest where respondents self-reported as having less knowledge about the topic beforehand.

Manufacturing doubt

This is the first independent assessment of the effectiveness of industry misinformation, with direct comparisons across a range of industries which affect public health.

The study provides evidence that the real-life arguments these industries spend a large amount of money distributing through Corporate Social Responsibility, legal arguments or evidence submissions actually work to foster doubt in the mind of the public about whether these products are harmful.

In effect, these companies aren't just causing harm, they are expending money and resources to pollute public discourse and understanding too. This is something research should do far more to bear witness to and address.

Dr Nason MaaniSPECTRUM Research Fellow and Assistant Professor of Public Health Evaluation at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

More information

The paper is available from SSM – Population Health

Watch a short video summarising the study on YouTube