There were two items in the news last week that created an interesting juxtaposition on the issue of transparency.
The first concerned the new guidelines for Vloggers – those entrepreneurial YouTubers who have managed to create a following by recording short video clips of their lives, hoping to earn a few pounds along the way.
Some, it seems, have been earning extra money by being paid to recommend products to their viewers – Oreo biscuits being the most high profile example – and such is their influence that new rules have been established to make sure the unsuspecting public know money has changed hands. In short, they can recommend anything they like, but must make a clear declaration if they’ve been paid to do so.
The BBC news cheerfully put together item where three young female Vloggers dutifully explained the new rules, gaining some useful exposure for their own YouTube channel along the way.
You can hardly object to the rules; transparency is important and the consuming public should not be misled. These young women hardly seemed to be a major threat to society, though, and you couldn’t help thinking that the establishment had come down hard on some enterprising young people who had found a way to start saving for a mortgage.
The second item concerned e cigarettes. Public Health England had produced a report stating that e cigarettes are ‘95% less harmful’ than standard cigarettes and suggesting that they should be prescribed on the NHS in the future.
The report is not a new study, but the opinion of a group of experts who have looked at all the evidence that is out there and given us the benefit of their combined wisdom.
Now, when a Vlogger declares one brand of biscuit to be superior to another, we have a right to know whether or not they have any financial incentive to say so; as Shahriar Coupal, director of the Committee of Advertising Practice says: ‘it’s simply not fair if we’re being advertised to and are not made aware of that fact.’
So what if a scientific expert declares one type of cigarette to be safer than another? Do we not have the same right to know whether the expert has had any financial dealings with the makers of cigarettes? Good medical practice would certainly say so, but the practical reality is often very different.
I have looked at the report in detail. The names of the authors are clear, but nowhere in its 111 pages can I find any declaration of interests; I have no way of knowing whether or not these authors have been paid by the makers of e cigarettes.
Which is more important? The type of biscuit someone may buy after watching a video on YouTube, or the health advice given to the nation by Public Health England on something as topical as e cigarettes?
I’m not stating that the authors do have any conflict of interests – they may well be entirely free from such ties – but the issue is that I cannot tell. If they have no such links, then tell me – I will be far more willing to trust the opinion of these experts if that is the case. If, on the other hand, they have received money from industry, then I have both a right and a need to know – for the sake of my patients and the advice I may pass on to them.
The authors may have made declarations of interests elsewhere, but this is no good to me since I don’t know where to look, and anyway, why should I be required to hunt for them? The Vloggers have to make a declaration on the page where they advertise the product, it should be no different for Public Health England.
Why are these declarations so often absent in reports like this? Is it thoughtlessness, laziness, or something more sinister? I don’t know, but it should be different. We need a culture change until it becomes unthinkable to publish such a report without them. We need a media that will focus the story on the lack of such a declaration rather than on the report itself – which is, after all, meaningless without it.
So what do I think of the report itself? Sadly, until I know if I can trust its authors I just don’t think I can make a judgement.
As you will be able to see from the comments below, Public Health England have amended the report to include full DOI on pages 90 and 91 which is great news!