Asbestos victims denounce major conflicts of interest of scientist named to head France’s leading institute of epidemiology and public health

Thu, Jan 16, 2014


Kathleen Ruff,

In a letter released today, France’s National Association of Asbestos Victims (ANDEVA) demands that the nomination of Paolo Boffetta as head of France’s top institute of epidemiology and public health be rejected.

“The candidacy of Dr. Boffetta is seriously flawed by major conflicts of interest which are totally incompatible with leadership of France’s most important institute of epidemiology,” says ANDEVA in its letter to France’s National Institute for Health & Medical Research and the University of Paris-Sud. The letter was also sent to the France’s Minister of Health and Minister of Research.

Presently, Dr. Boffetta is the only scientist being considered for the post, which will be filled in 2014.

ANDEVA points to Boffetta’s role as a major share-holder and Vice President of a consulting company, nicely called the International Prevention Research Institute (IPRI). “IPRI produces and sells expertise or ‘scientific’ articles to industries on health issues and health risks,” states ANDEVA.

ANDEVA strongly criticizes an article by Boffetta and an IPRI colleague, Carlo La Vecchia, published in the European Journal of Cancer Prevention, which denied that continued exposure to asbestos causes additional harm to workers. This conclusion is false, states ANDEVA.

Boffetta and La Vecchia were paid by a company, facing criminal charges for the deaths of a number of its workers from asbestos-related diseases, to put forward this argument in court on the company’s behalf. ANDEVA condemns the fact that, in their article, Boffetta and La Vecchia falsely stated that they had no conflicts of interest.

If Boffetta were to be appointed as head of France’s leading epidemiology institute (CESP), “this would constitute a bad sign that would encourage lobbying practices and corruption by industrialists toward scientific institutes and government authorities, which would be disastrous for public health,” writes ANDEVA in its letter. “Our association represents tens of thousands of victims of the greatest health disaster that France has ever known, precisely because of such practices.”

An article in today’s Le Monde, extensively covers ANDEVA’s letter: “Controversy over appointment to the pinnacle of French epidemiology. The Association of Asbestos Victims denounces “major conflicts of interest” (translation).

The article reports ANDEVA’s concerns and also refers to the letter sent by scientists in France, Canada and Germany to IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer), asking IARC to take action to correct the failure of Boffetta to disclose his conflict of interest in an article on asbestos by IARC, published by the British Cancer Journal (BJC),  for which Boffetta was the corresponding author.

On receiving this complaint, IARC has been forced to take the embarrassing action of notifying the BJC, two years after the publication of the article, of Boffetta’s failure to follow the ethical requirement of disclosing his financial connection with a company on the asbestos issue, while he was writing an article on asbestos. Worse than not disclosing, Boffetta had put forward false information in the IARC article, stating that he had no conflict of interest, when he did. This action by IARC is a public humiliation for Boffetta and a repudiation of his lack of transparency, which violates the ethical standards of IARC and of any reputable scientific journal.

The IARC article has been severely criticized by scientists for putting forward inaccurate and misleading information that serves the interests of the asbestos industry by minimizing and creating doubt about harm caused by chrysotile asbestos and by appearing to support “controlled use” of asbestos (the asbestos industry’s position).

IARC has stated that its Ethics Committee will examine the complaints submitted to IARC’s Director, Dr. Christopher Wild, regarding inaccurate and misleading information in the IARC paper on asbestos and improprieties in IARC’s Uralasbest research project in collaboration with Russian scientists who promote asbestos use and export.

Boffetta has resigned from IPRI

Boffetta is no longer listed as a Research Director of IPRI. When asked why, IPRI stated, without giving any reason, that Boffetta resigned, effective December 31, 2013. La Vecchia continues to be an IPRI Research Director, so it seems that IPRI finds nothing improper in their conduct in putting forward perverted science on asbestos and in not disclosing their financing by the company facing charges for causing asbestos-related deaths of workers.

Boffetta earlier stated that he would end his relationship with IPRI, if he became head of CESP. Presumably, he has now done so in order to forward his candidature.

Removing his involvement with IPRI does nothing, however, to remove his conduct of being financed by toxic industries and carrying out research that distorts the scientific literature to come up with findings that are favourable to the industries’ interests and deny harm of known carcinogens.

This conduct by Boffetta demonstrates a lack of scientific and ethical integrity.

The question is whether France’s top institute of epidemiology and health considers scientific and ethical integrity to be essential qualifications for any scientist who works for the institute and, in particular, for the scientist who will take the top leadership role of the institute.


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