A research unit led by an arch critic of the Scottish Government’s anti-drugs strategy has received funding from tobacco companies, the Herald on Sunday can reveal.

The Centre for Substance Use Research (CSUR), co-founded by former Glasgow University professor Neil McKeganey, has taken money from cigarette makers such as Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco (BAT).

It has also been funded by a UK firm that was behind an alternative to the methadone programme, which McKeganey has said is “out of control” in Scotland.

Monica Lennon, the Scottish Labour shadow health secretary, criticised the tobacco funding.

A national debate is taking place on the Government’s approach to addiction after figures showed rising numbers of drug-related deaths.

The death toll came to 934 in 2017 - more than double the amount in 2007 - and experts predict the figure will soar to over 1,000.

Some doubters believe the increase is evidence the Government’s harm reduction strategy - largely based on helping users manage their addictions - is failing.

They want a greater emphasis on people becoming drug free and have called for a rethink of the use of methadone, an alternative to heroin.

One of the chief critics is McKeganey, who used to be the director of the Centre for Drug Misuse Research at Glasgow University.

He then helped set up an independent unit in 2011 - now called the Centre for Substance Use Research (CSUR). He is listed at Companies House as its co-director.

In a recent interview, McKeganey slammed the current approach to drugs policy and called for an immediate 50% reduction in the estimated £60m-a-year spend on methadone.

He said: “The harm prevention lobby, which is just about everyone who has the ear of the Government, would say that cutting methadone would cause a large spike in deaths from heroin overdoses – but I don’t believe that’s the case. It would be more likely to halve than to double.”

His scepticism about aspects of the methadone programme has been long-standing. In 2015, he said: "Successive inquiries have shown that the programme is in a sense out of control; it just sits there, delivering more methadone to more addicts, year in year out, with very little sense of the progress those individuals are making towards their recovery."

He also described methadone in 2001 as a “highly dangerous and addictive drug”, adding: “It should never be the case that an addict comes for help and the condition is made worse."

However, McKeganey has been criticised over the funding of the CSUR. The website for the research centre does not currently provide details of backers, but older web-pages retrieved by the Herald on Sunday do provide names.

In the CSUR’s “funders” section, the website used to state that one backer was UK firm Reckitt Benckiser, which was behind the withdrawal medication Suboxone, a competitor to methadone.

In 2013, McKeganey and two others authored a report which compared methadone and suboxone in relation to assisting patient recovery from opiate dependency.

It noted that Suboxone was “associated with a significantly larger cessation of heroin use than was methadone". They added that the data made the case for “prescribing services to make greater use of Suboxone in the pharmacologic treatment of opiate dependence”.

The report also stated: “This study was supported by an unrestricted, unsolicited investigator-initiated request from Reckitt Benckiser who had no role in study design, data collection, analysis, interpretation of data, writing of the manuscript, or the decision to submit the manuscript for publication."

In 2014, over a year after the report came out, McKeganey was quoted in the media on the high levels of drug use mortality in Scotland:

“Yet Scottish doctors have been strangely reluctant to move their prescribing away from methadone on to Suboxone.

“The drug is more expensive, so it could be that they are being driven by concerns about price. But if it were to result in a major reduction in the number of addict deaths, many people would say that’s a price worth paying.”

The CSUR website also shows that the Centre has attracted funding from global tobacco giants BAT and Philip Morris, which collectively brought in revenues of around £100bn in 2018.

So too has support been provided by Nicoventures - set up by BAT to focus on alternatives to cigarettes - and vaping technology specialist Fontem Ventures, a subsidiary of tobacco firm Imperial Brands plc.

The old web-page explained: “Tobacco-industry funded research within CSUR is focussed on the development of harm reduction products and assessing their impact in reducing the adverse health impact of smoking.

“No research has been undertaken, nor will ever be undertaken within CSUR, that is aimed at increasing the use of combustible tobacco products.”

McKeganey also co-authored a report for the CSUR in 2016 that was funded by Forest, a smokers’ rights group bankrolled by UK-based tobacco firms.

The survey, entitled “The Pleasure of Smoking”, found that 77% of those contacted saw themselves as continuing to smoke “well into the future”, with 95% citing enjoyment as their reason for doing it.

He also co-wrote a report into the plain packaging of tobacco products, a move opposed by the industry. They concluded that “no person has an evidence base from which to contend that plain packaging has reduced or increased smoking in any jurisdiction”.

The article stated: “No funding was received by any tobacco company to prepare or submit this article for publication.”

According to the old web-pages, past funders of research conducted within the Centre include the Home Office, the Scottish Government, the EU and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

In May last year, according to Companies House, McKeganey became a director of the Centre for Tobacco Harm Reduction Ltd, a new firm. It does not need to file accounts until next year.

Lennon said: “When seeking to influence the public debate on Scotland’s substance misuse crisis, including the role of methadone in opioid substitute programmes, Mr McKeganey should declare his Centre’s funding links to Reckitt Benckiser, the producer of a rival drug.”

“It’s also inappropriate for the Centre to take tobacco company funding without stating how much it has received. Transparency is crucial so that people know when work is funded by Big Tobacco.”

“Scottish Labour has urged the Scottish Government to declare Scotland’s drug and alcohol crisis a public health emergency. We need impartial evidence-based solutions to prevent and reduce the harms caused by substance misuse.”

Sheila Duffy, Chief Executive of health charity ASH Scotland said: “The tobacco industry consistently prioritises profit over people, with a long track record of manipulation and misinformation. Tobacco companies lack credibility. The work they fund tends to come out with partial or predictably biased conclusions that are out of step with the main body of independent research. They pay to put their messages in other people’s mouths.”


HOS: Do you believe you should declare the Centre’s commercial link to Reckitt Benckiser whenever you talk about methadone in the media?

NM: The Centre received funding from Reckitt Benckiser/Indivior in undertaking research that involved assessing the rate of recovery amongst drug users prescribed Suboxone. The source of funding for that research was fully acknowledged in the peer reviewed paper reporting those findings. I do not believe that it is necessary or appropriate for me to state the sources of the centre’s research funding at every occasion when I am asked about the role and impact of methadone in treating Scottish drug users who have become dependent upon opiate based drugs.

As you may know my colleagues and I undertook the largest survey ever carried out in Scotland assessing the impact of drug treatment services (including prescribed methadone) on individuals’ recovery. That research was funded by the Robertson Trust. My public comments on methadone (in contrast to my comments on Suboxone) are influenced by that larger research study....rather than the research on Suboxone which we undertook on the basis of the funding from Reckitt Benckiser.

Personally I would suggest that the obligation to report funding here is much greater in relation to those prescribing doctors who have been and are in receipt of funding from the manufacturers of methadone. I actually rarely see any of the Scottish doctors who are passionate advocates for methadone acknowledging that they are themselves in receipt of grants consultancies, travel allowances, conference registrations etc when they are commenting publicly on the benefits of methadone.

HOS: Do you have any ethical concerns about the Centre receiving money from tobacco companies?

NM: In relation to the ethics surrounding the provision of funding to the Centre from the tobacco industry all of our research is aimed at studying the potential role of e-cigarettes in enabling smokers to cease smoking. We do not have, nor would we ever, undertake research which is aimed at increasing smoking. In relation to our publications based on the research which we have undertaken the source of funding for our research is fully disclosed.

HOS: How much has the Centre received from the four tobacco-related firms mentioned?

NM: The level of funding we have received from the various companies you have asked about has fluctuated markedly over the last five years. I am not in a position to provide you with a total amount not least because we are a private research company rather than a public body. I would not imagine that you would release your own salary within the public arena for much the same reason that the Herald itself is not a public body.

HOS: Why is there no “funders” section on the current version of the website?

NM: We are currently updating our funders page on our website to reflect our current rather than historical funding situation.