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A long-standing ethical challenge for public health organisations is how to manage conflicts of interest (COI) in partnerships with industry. This has been a particular concern with industries such as tobacco that produce harmful products and have a documented record of distorting health research. Consequently, in several cases, public health agencies have issued guidelines limiting industry-funded projects and collaborations to guard against COI.1
In other cases, however, public health agencies accept industry funding. For example, the CDC Foundation is an independent organisation that connects the CDC, the US’s leading national public health agency, with private sector organisations and individual funding partners.2 The CDC Foundation receives millions of dollars from industry (eg, US$12 million in 2014) as well as other groups to support CDC projects. Whether this funding has influenced CDC research and recommendations, or whether this is a case of private companies donating money ‘in a transparent manner to do unbranded research’, is a matter of ongoing debate.3 4 Multiple studies have shown, however, that industry support of research does influence outcomes.5
The National Football League’s (NFL) sponsorship and dissemination of research on sports-related traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), including the league’s partnership with the CDC, represents an important recent case of troubling industry involvement with public health efforts. The NFL is a multi-billion-dollar corporation and the major professional league of American-style tackle football, a sport that involves repeated full-body collisions and high risks of injury.6 The NFL’s influence on TBI research and education is particularly salient given the prevalence of sports-related TBI, and accumulating evidence of the short-term and long-term effects of such injuries.7 Consequently, public health agencies need to consider whether and how to approach potential partnerships with professional sports leagues such as the NFL to address TBI.
In this article, we describe several …
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