Company acknowledges “misjudgment” following a BMJ investigation, but medics call for a global ban on industry-funded medical education

Medical education provider Medscape has bowed to pressure and agreed to permanently remove a series of accredited medical education courses on smoking cessation funded by the tobacco industry giant Philip Morris International (PMI), The BMJ and The Examination have found.

The global company has acknowledged its “misjudgment” in a letter to complainants and says it will not accept funding from any organisation affiliated with the tobacco industry in the future. .

The move comes after an investigation by The BMJ revealed the PMI deal and the widespread protests among doctors and academics in reaction to the partnership.

According to an internal Medscape document seen by The BMJ and the Examination, Medscape had planned to deliver 13 programmes under a multi-million dollar deal with PMI – called the “PMI Curriculum” – as well as podcasts and a “TV-like series.”

Other PMI-funded programmes with different continuing medical education (CME) providers have also emerged in Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

This apparent global push by the tobacco giant into certified medical education has been met with alarm and calls for certification bodies to issue a ban. 

In response to the criticism, a spokesperson for Philip Morris International told The BMJ: “Health agencies around the world have recognized the beneficial role that smoke-free products can play to improve public health. We are concerned that known special interest groups are actively blocking medical education that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and medical community have determined are needed. These actions stand to prolong use and possibly increase consumption of combustible cigarettes—the most harmful form of nicotine use.”

But Tim McAfee at the University of California, San Francisco and former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Office on Smoking and Health, called PMI’s partnership with Medscape, “the ultimate example of the fox not only signing up to guard the hen house but offering to sit on the eggs. 

“It is a perversion of ethics surrounding continuing medical education to allow the very companies that caused and profit from the continuing epidemic of tobacco-related death and disease to be involved in any way,” he said.

Medscape claims that the course content complied fully with standards set by the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education (ACCME), but Pamela Ling, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California San Francisco, said if so, “then the standards need to be strengthened to ensure they don’t allow merchants of death to educate doctors.”

This view is supported in a linked editorial by Professor Ruth Malone at the University of California San Francisco, who says “health professionals, health leaders, their societies and professional organisations must demand that the bodies accrediting continuing medical education for clinicians enact policies banning content sponsored by tobacco-affiliated organisations.”

Health professional and patient organisations should also caution their members to be aware that the tobacco industry is attempting to influence patient care in favour of its products, she adds.

She highlights that Medscape is not the only company offering CME, and PMI may not be the only tobacco company working to influence health professionals in this way, and says similar offerings should be widely publicised and the relevant educational providers notified that tobacco industry sponsorship is unacceptable.

“The tobacco industry cannot be allowed to influence medical education, health practitioners, or patient care in this way as it desperately seeks to secure its future profits,” she concludes.


Notes for editors
Investigation: Medscape caves in on courses funded by tobacco giant while medics fear global Philip Morris push into medical education doi: 10.1136/bmj.q948
Editorial: Stop tobacco industry sponsorship of continuing medical education doi: 10.1136/bmj.q950
Journal: The BMJ

Funding: BMJ Investigations Unit

The Examination is a nonprofit investigative newsroom covering global public health that is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Pulitzer Center and others. 

Link to Academy of Medical Sciences press release labelling system:

Externally peer reviewed? Yes (investigation); No (editorial)
Evidence type: Investigation + linked editorial
Subject: Tobacco industry-funded medical education