Was this study unethical?
We reviewed and published a randomised controlled trial in which children’s exposure to parental secondhand smoke (SHS) was either sustained (usual practice control) or parents were asked to avoid smoking around their children (intervention group). The study included more than 400 children averaging 9 years old. Parents provided written informed consent. The study was approved by the ethics committee of the researchers’ institution. Data were collected in a school setting by self-reported questionnaire and interviews. Children were classified according to amount of SHS exposure and baseline data about several types of symptoms were collected. The children with the symptom of interest and exposed to SHS were then randomly divided into two groups. Smoking members of families in group 1 were asked not to smoke in the child’s presence for a period of 6 months while those in group 2 were asked not to change their smoking habits. Parents were told prior to study enrolment that they would not be required to quit smoking as part of participation, rather they would be asked to reduce children’s SHS exposure. After 6 months, data were collected again in order to assess the proportion of children in the two groups who were still displaying the symptom of interest. Following this trial, all parents and children were asked to participate in a 5 month school project related to the risks of SHS exposure. The project included weekly lessons about the risk of SHS, attended by children with their parents to educate children about SHS risks and help parents to either reduce or cease smoking in their children’s presence.
Neither the handling editor nor reviewers raised questions about the study’s ethics during the review process. However, following publication, we received a letter questioning the study’s ethics on the basis that the known risks of SHS exposure outweighed any benefit to be gained by learning about whether SHS was a risk factor for the studied symptom and that the study procedures violated the Helsinki Declaration. The letter’s authors argued that the study’s advising of smoking parents in the control group to not change smoking habits could have unnecessarily exposed their children to additional SHS if parents who would have otherwise quit or reduced their children’s exposure did not do so because of the study. The authors of the letter claimed that they could not think of a single research question that would justify exposing children to SHS.
In discussion, one of the editors argued that the letter missed the important point that after the randomised controlled trial, all participants received the 5 month intervention to promote smoking cessation among parents and/or to reduce SHS exposure, and questioned the letter’s implication that the children would be better off if the study had not been conducted. S/he wrote that the letter seemed to argue against any controlled trial to reduce children's exposure to SHS, but that there were several dozen of these in the published literature.
The questions are twofold: was this an unethical study? And, if so, how should the journal proceed?
The editor told the Forum that questions raised during the review process were answered by the authors. The authors informed the editor that institutional review board (IRB) approval had been obtained but they did not provide evidence of IRB approval. The Forum advised the editor to publish the letter and give the original authors a chance to reply. The editor might also consider publishing the IRB approval statement. Another suggestion was to commission a commentary or write an editorial on this issue.
As advised by the Forum, the editor contacted the study authors to clarify the protocol instructions. In addition, the journal obtained a confidential consultation from an independent ethics body with four experts who summarised relevant ethical concerns. The journal also solicited a letter from the study authors to respond to the issues raised in the letter to the editor and solicited expert opinion from the department of bioethics of a major institution.
The letter to the editor, response from the authors and the expert commentary will be published in an upcoming issue along with a brief introductory statement from the editorial staff. The introduction invites the journal’s readers to review the materials in the interest of furthering reflection on the ethical implications of research on the effects of secondhand smoke and the ethics of the research enterprise more generally.