Physicians testified for tobacco companies against plaintiffs with cancer, Stanford study finds
Otolaryngologists have repeatedly testified, on behalf of the tobacco industry, that heavy smoking did not cause the cancer in cases of dying patients suing for damages, according to a study by a Stanford University School of Medicine researcher.
Robert Jackler, MD, professor and chair of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery, said he was was shocked by the degree to which these physicians were willing to testify against a dying plaintiff, to deny them fair trials. These physicians cited in the study as a "pool of experts willing to say over and over again that smoking didn't cause cancer."
The study was published online July 17 in Laryngoscope.
Jackler, who holds the Edward C. and Amy H. Sewall Professorship in Otorhinolaryngology, conducted a year and a half of research, which included reading through thousands of pages of publicly available, expert-witness depositions and trial testimony. He then reviewed the scientific literature to see if testimony by expert witnesses for the tobacco industry was supported by evidence. Jackler said that a physician serving as expert has an ethical obligation to interpret the scientific data in a fair and balanced manner. The literature, he found, repeatedly repudiated the testimony.
The study reports that six board-certified otolaryngologists were paid by one or more of the tobacco companies R.J. Reynolds, Phillip Morris and Lorillard to serve as expert witnesses. These physicians gave testimony that indicated a multiplicity of environmental factors, ranging from exposure to cleaning solvents to the consumption of salted fish to the use of mouthwash, were more likely to have caused the plaintiff's head and neck cancers than years of heavy smoking. The cases occurred between 2009 and 2014. One physician said he was paid $100,000 to testify in a single case. Another admitted that her opinion was written by tobacco company lawyers and then approved by her. Still another rejected reports from the Surgeon General as authoritative sources. Together, the six otolaryngologists in this study helped to defend the tobacco industry in more than 50 cases.
"Evidence shows that this testimony, which was remarkably similar across cases, was part of a defense strategy shaped by tobacco's law firms," the study said. "By highlighting an exhaustive list of potential risk factors, such as alcohol, diesel fumes, machinery fluid, salted fish, reflux of stomach acid, mouthwash and even urban living, they created doubt in the minds of the jurors as to the role of smoking in the plaintiff's cancer."
"The addictiveness of nicotine, the dangers of tobacco and the track record of industry deception and misconduct are considered factual in subsequent trials," the study said. "This has resulted in thousands of individual Engle progeny cases. Because the cases primarily focused on whether tobacco caused the plaintiff's diseases, expert testimony was crucial."