Friday, December 08, 2006

Conflict of Interest?

When cancer specialist Sir Richard Doll died last year, his obituaries highlighted his ground-breaking work on smoking and cancer [BBC News, July 24, 2006]. By identifying the link between smoking and lung cancer, he was credited with saving the lives of millions of people.

In a book published in 2003, however, he had been attacked for his exclusive focus on smoking and lifestyle, and for his refusal to discuss other possible causes of cancer, including industrial and environmental - notably asbestos. His Oxford college received a large donation from the asbestos industry, and questions were raised about his defence of corporate interests [Note 1].

Now a forthcoming paper in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine [Note 2] produces evidence that he was taking money from Monsanto (producers of Agent Orange) and other chemical companies, while denying the link between vinyl chloride and cancer.

In a discussion on BBC Radio 4 this morning [Note 3], a former colleague defended his record, saying that standards of disclosure had changed since the time [Note 4].

But a wicked thought occurred to me. Let's just suppose for the sake of argument that Sir Richard was taking back-handers from the chemical industry. (Either for his own benefit, or for causes he was closely associated with.) And it seems pretty clear that he was not taking back-handers from the tobacco industry. So is there a causal link here - was it the chemical money that helped him resist the rival attractions of tobacco money? After all, a research scientist has got to get funding from somewhere.

Note 1: Stop Cancer Before It Starts: How to Win the War On Cancer (pdf) by Samuel S. Epstein, Ph.D. 2003. Via Cancer Prevention Coalition.

Note 2: Hardell, L, MJ Walker, B Walhjalt, LS Friedman and ED Richter. 2006. Secret ties to industry and conflicting interests in cancer research. American Journal of Industrial Medicine. Via Our Stolen Future.

Note 3: BBC Radio programmes are generally available on the Internet for seven days after broadcast.

Note 4: See my earlier post on Shifting Standards.

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