15 December 2003
Judgement in the “Affaire Rylander”
Pascal Diethelm and Dr. Jean-Charles Rielle acquitted
“Geneva has indeed been the platform of a scientific fraud without precedent in the sense that Ragnar Rylander has acted in his capacity of associate professor at the University, taking advantage of its influence and reputation and not hesitating to put science at the service of money, in disregard of the mission entrusted to this public institution, which consists in particular in the dissemination of a culture founded on scientific knowledge and in raising awareness of the responsibility that teachers assume towards society.» (in ACJP 223/03 p. 22)
This morning, December 15, the Criminal Division of the Court of Justice of the canton of Geneva made public its ruling concerning the “affaire Rylander “, in which Professor Ragnar Rylander had alleged that we had libelled him by drawing attention to the scale of his involvement with the tobacco industry and accusing him of unprecedented scientific fraud in his work as a highly paid consultant for Philip Morris. The court announced that we had been acquitted of the charge of libel and awarded costs against Professor Rylander. This decision is a matter of great satisfaction and the logical conclusion of a judicial battle that will have lasted more than two and a half years.
From the beginning of this process, which has involved five judgements by five different courts, we remained calm and never doubted that the truth would eventually emerge. We are happy to note that the Swiss justice system, in which we have always had complete confidence, has, in the end, worked well. In the first hearing the Tribunal de police (Geneva misdemeanour court) took the first step to discovering the truth, declaring as proved that Rylander had secretly worked for Philip Morris. Next, the Court of Justice delved deeper into the facts and added that it was proved that Rylander was the one of Philip Morris’ most highly paid consultants, while observing than he had not hesitated to cheat the public by favouring his financial sponsor. The Federal Court then asked the Court of Justice to review its ruling on the basis that the degree of scientific fraud exposed was unprecedented.
We welcome today’s ruling by the Court of Justice. We are impressed by the methodical approach and sharpness of the presentation, showing the meticulous way in which the Court has studied this complex case with its voluminous collection of documents.
The decision of the Court constitutes an important victory for public health and for the integrity of scientific research in Switzerland and throughout the world. It has established that a large multinational tobacco corporation, Philip Morris, was engaged for almost thirty years in the use of a reputable scientist to infiltrate the University of Geneva. It used the reputation of this academic institution to produce biased research and give credibility to misleading symposiums that were designed to deny the scientific evidence concerning the dangers of passive smoking, to create the confusion and to maintain controversy even though there was consensus among bona fide researchers. By these covert means, and in connivance with other multinational tobacco companies, Philip Morris succeeded delaying for several decades, and on a global scale, the implementation of measures to protect the public against the effects of second hand smoke. It blocked attempts at legislation and sabotaged the efforts of public health authorities, while distracting public attention from the importance of preventing exposure to second hand smoke. The health and economic implications of this failure are huge – in Switzerland it is estimated that it caused several thousand premature deaths as well as levels of ill health that contribute - and continue to contribute – to the explosion in health care costs.
This process has revealed how the industry treats those who dare to criticize it, that is to say those that – according to the very terms used by Rylander in his complaint – “fight with audacity the effects of tobacco”. From the outset we were the object of serious attacks by the other party. We were accused of fiscal denouncement without any supporting evidence. The insults against our persons were appalling and very disturbing for our families attending the various hearings: we were accused of being louts, of being mediocre and unfit, of being Taliban, fanatics, extremists, fundamentalists, inveterate anti-smokers, sadists, Stalinists, and many other things. The other party also accused us, through the media, of making hidden demands on the University of Geneva (a complaint has been filed about this). These blows, often under the belt, did not shake us. Instead they had the effect of reinforcing our determination as we interpreted them as a sign of the vulnerability of our opponent's position, a conclusion which the media seem to have also reached. Unsurprisingly, our knowledge of the tactics used by the industry from the thousands of its internal documents than we had read, made such methods highly predictable. Finally, the indefatigable support of the public health community, at all levels, cantonal, federal and international - support that was stimulated by these attacks – greatly encouraged us.
The University of Geneva was taken advantage of for almost thirty years, unaware of its role as a platform for an unprecedented scientific fraud. Today’s ruling should enable our Alma Mater to complete, calmly and with resolve, its investigations into this case. We have full confidence that the commission of integrity will establish the facts and make the obvious inferences. We only hope that the university will not delay in publishing its conclusions, which should permit it to correct the slightly hasty findings of its first administrative investigation. We recommend that Dr Takeshi Hirayama, the leading Japanese epidemiologist, who gave so much of his life to the study of the effects of passive smoking, be awarded the posthumous title of doctor honoris causa of the university to compensate for the shameful treatment of his work and his person during the 1983 Rylander Symposium, which was held at, and under the auspices of, the University of Geneva, and which was deliberately undertaken to undermine his research. It is also desirable that the interim recommendation of the university that its members should not accept funds originating from the tobacco industry become permanent.
It is likely that Philip Morris and other multinational tobacco companies will react to this judgement by saying that that it is history and that they have changed. First, even if that was true, it does not constitute an excuse: the damages inflicted on science and public health continue to have an effect to the present, the victims of this unprecedented fraud are dying today and, until the next generation is protected from the effects of second hand smoke, their numbers will be steadily replenished. On the other hand, all the evidence available to us shows that the industry has not changed – it simply employs a vast public relations effort to reinvent itself, while presenting an image of corporate social responsibility. That should not fool anyone. The tobacco industry continues to deny the causal link between passive smoking (and in some cases even active smoking) and disease. It has not yet renounced its attempts to influence the scientific process, as shown by events surrounding a recent study of passive smoking published in a prestigious scientific journal, a study in which the full role of the tobacco industry was concealed.
Today’s victory is not therefore that the long war against tobacco has been won. It is nevertheless a significant battle that shows how, with sufficient determination, two individuals, supported by their associations and with the support of the public health community and the assistance of excellent lawyers (Christian Pirker and Charles Poncet), can take on a tobacco giant.
Pascal A. Diethelm, OxyGenève
Dr Jean-Charles Rielle Litigation
Addendum : Other extracts from the judgment:
“(Re)reading the press release of 20 March 2001, one is compelled to observe that it very largely and faithfully reflects the facts as we have described them above on the basis of the numerous exhibits that have been produced during the current process, in particular the correspondence between Ragnar Rylander and Philip Morris, its lawyers, or the associated organizations.”
“These exhibits attest that a long, close and fruitful collaboration existed between the researcher and professor Ragnar Rylander and one of the major actors of the tobacco industry. It thus appears conformant with the truth that Rylander was contractually linked to Philip Morris, and during a long period. Therefore, when he stated that he never was employed by the cigarette manufacturer, Ragnar Rylander played with words. To know whether there is a conflict of interest in a given situation obviously does not depend on the sole existence of an employment contract in the technical sense of the term (see for example art. 319 CO). By declaring, in the last instance to the "European Journal of Public Health", in 2001, that no contract had ever been signed by him and Philip Morris, Ragnar Rylander lied.”
“The passages of the correspondence exchanged between Ragnar Rylander and Philip Morris, and the respective associated organizations, as well as their American lawyers, as described in the IN FACT section above, show in a very clear fashion that the organization of symposia in 1974 and 1983 had as its main goal to communicate a message, to the researchers as well as to the public, that the available data concerning the harmful effects of smoke on the non-smoker was insufficient and uncertain in regard, notably, to other factors that were susceptible of influencing their health.”
“Of course, public opinion has considerably evolved during the last decades and the authorities and the individuals have become aware of the issue of passive smoking as a factor that negatively affects public health. This being said, the juxtaposition of the statement of the witness William Farone, former collaborator of Philip Morris, according to whom the cigarette manufacturer knew since the middle of the 1960's the link between smoke and cancer, et the view promoted by Ragnar Rylander, notably in 1992 before the American Thoracic Society, that there was no significant relation between passive smoking and respiratory diseases, show to what extent the tobacco industry and, with it, a number of researchers, have contributed to maintain that opinion in a profitable ignorance.”
“Ragnar Rylander has said a very small part of the truth – the sponsoring by the tobacco industry of the two symposia of 1974 and 1983 - while remaining silent on all the rest, including, in particular, his role within the INBIFO research laboratory, his permanent links with the lawyers of Philip Morris and the fact that his articles were regularly submitted to Philip Morris before being published.”
“In such circumstances, the raison d'être of the secrecy put in place and maintained by Ragnar Rylander and Philip Morris concerning their "commercial" relations is easily understood.”
“The investigations have demonstrated that still in 1999, the editor of a scientific journal such as the "European Journal of Public Health" was ignorant of the links between Ragnar Rylander and the tobacco industry and was led to believe his declarations that contradicted the existence of such links.”
“The elements already emphasized in the decision of 16 January 2003 and the complementary elements that have just been evoked above lead the Criminal Court to admit that the appellants have not exaggerated when using the term "scientific fraud" to qualify this double role, on the one hand, of professor in the field of environmental medicine and of independent researcher that Rylander attributed to himself, and, on the other hand, of collaborator at the service of an industry that has always placed itself at the opposite of public health.” (emphasis added)
“A deception that spans, as it is the case here, over some 30 years and that has been maintained even at the cost of lies – reference being made to Ragnar Rylander's declaration to the European Journal of Public Health concerning the absence of conflicts of interest – assuredly deserve the qualifier that has been used.”
(Uncertified translation by Oxygenève)