International campaigns against electronic cigarettes suffered another blow today when a prominent UK anti-vaping activist was found to have made false claims of bias. Professor Martin McKee, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has been strongly critical of a major August 2015 report that confirmed the popular devices are much safer than smoking tobacco.

McKee seems to have objected to the report saying that, according to the best available evidence, e-cigarettes are around 95% safer than real cigarettes. Many British scientists suspected he was responsible for an anonymous attack piece in medical journal The Lancet, claiming that the study was funded by the vaping industry.

In fact the study was paid for and published by Public Health England, and the 95% figure came from a separate study funded by an Italian anti-smoking group.

Released information points at false claims

Now a Freedom of Information Act request has revealed that in private emails with the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, Sally Davies, McKee went much further; he claimed the origin of the number was British American Tobacco. The author of the study, respected addiction expert Prof. David Nutt, says BAT had nothing to do with his research or the 95% safer claim - and, when asked yesterday, BAT flatly denied the number came from them.It looks like McKee simply invented the allegation to attack the Public Health England report, because he didn’t like its findings.

The disclosed emails also confirm McKee was the writer of the Lancet article. Many British anti-smoking groups criticized this when it was published, concerned at its personal attacks on scientists who published results the then-anonymous author disliked. It was also fiercely critical of Public Health England; interestingly, the emails hint at personality clashes between McKee and senior directors of the health agency.

What’s most worrying about recent disclosures is that Sally Davies, an outspoken opponent of e-cigs who’s faced criticism for saying smokers should “just grow a backbone” and quit, has been exchanging hundreds of emails with a small group of anti-vaping activists while not supporting the Department of Health’s own report on the subject.

There are likely to be questions about why pressure groups and campaigners, many of them funded by the pharmaceutical industry, seem to enjoy privileged access to the government’s Chief Medical officer.

More controversy hits US campaigner

Meanwhile Californian activist Professor Stanton Glantz is facing further criticism for misleading research. Glantz released a paper last week claiming that e-cigarettes make it harder to quit smoking, despite the respected Cochrane Collaboration and PHE both finding exactly the opposite. His study was immediately shredded by experts, whose comments included “not scientific”, “grossly misleading” and “an unscientific hatchet job”. Now the controversial campaigner, a former aerospace engineer who’s made a career out of anti-tobacco advocacy but has been frequently questioned on his methods, is under fire about an earlier paper.

A 1997 study by Glantz arguing that smoking bans have no effect on the earnings of bars was attacked at the time for using incorrect data. Glantz responded by accusing his critics of being paid by the tobacco industry, but finally admitted this week that he did use the wrong figures – he claimed his statistics covered all 600 bars in Santa Clara County, when in fact they were taken from just nine.

Smoking is still the largest cause of preventable deaths in the USA and most other western nations; helping smokers quit, and preventing young people from taking up the habit, are high priorities for health experts around the world. But many of those experts are questioning the methods of their more extreme colleagues. They argue that even if it’s done with good intentions, faking data and smearing opponents as tobacco shills is not acceptable - and dishonest attacks on e-cigs could cost lives.