Reply to Cottler et al. (2016): The NCRG firewall works more for the gambling industry than for the scientific community

Abstract

In a Commentary [1] on a ‘For Debate’ essay written by Livingston & Adams [2], I argued that the gambling industry's self-designed firewall between scientific research and gambling interests does more to protect the industry than the scientist. In their letter about my Commentary, a group of gambling industry-supported researchers [3] seem to illustrate exactly what I was saying.

As members of the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) of the National Center for Responsible Gaming (NCRG), the letter-writers at least agree that ‘vigilance regarding industry funding of scientific research is essential’; but then they focus on the finer cracks in the firewall, without considering the major channels through which the gambling industry's influence spreads. First, they state that SAB members are not, as I suggested, selected by the NCRG board, but by the SAB. This may be the policy now, but when the NCRG replaced Harvard's Institute for Research on Pathological Gambling and Related Disorders at the Division of Addiction at Harvard Medical School with the new Institute for Research on Gambling Disorders in 2009, all members of the SAB at the ‘new’ Institute were members of the previous Program Advisory Board at the Division of Addiction [4], which was established by the NCRG board, a group made up predominately of gambling and hospitality industry people.

Secondly, they dispute my statement that ‘…(the) Scientific Advisory Board (is) composed of gambling researchers’. They point out that some Board members are not gambling researchers. I accept that some Board members may not be gambling researchers. I should have said that the board is composed of researchers.

In their last point, Cottler et al. state: ‘SAB members are not allowed to apply for grants from the NCRG and do not receive any NCRG funding for research of any kind’ in response to my statement ‘[SAB members] have received grants to administer research programs’. Perhaps Cottler et al. meant to make the point that current active SAB members do not receive funding, but numerous past members, including Howard Shaffer and Ken Winters, among others [5, 6], have indeed received funds from NCRG according to their own website [7], even while serving as SAB members. As summarized by a 1998 Los Angeles Times article [8], ‘[Howard] Shaffer is now working on a new project for the industry's research arm [the NCRG]—of which he is a board member—for $465 000, more than triple the amount of the first award’.

Since the time of the infamous Council on Tobacco Research (CTR), set up by Phillip Morris, companies producing potentially harmful products (e.g. processed food, high sucrose sodas, asbestos, lead, alcohol and gambling) have all set up quasi-independent research funding operations on a model similar to CTR. We do not question the competence, independence or integrity of the scientific panel members, but we note that the years of litigation against the tobacco industry, amply documented in court depositions and internal industry documents [9, 10], revealed a pattern of manipulation to set the agenda for the panels and created an opportunity to recruit sympathetic scientists for industry lobbying, public relations activities, paid service as expert witnesses in court cases and writing letters to journal editors. Such activities not only provide credibility to the industry and give the appearance of collaboration with the scientific community, they also draw attention away from the industry's role in blocking effective policies and interventions [11]. Where the firewall proves to be woefully inadequate is precisely in its influence on senior scientists, some of whom become quite active as defenders of the industry.

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