Requirement that McGill’s involvement be kept secret

Mon, May 28, 2012


“I would wish to emphasis (sic) that there must be no publication of any part of this review under our name, and if any part of it should be published no reference should be made to us by name,” Prof. J Corbett McDonald, MD, FRCP, School of Occupational Health, McGill University.

In a letter of October 28, 1988 to Imperial Tobacco, Prof. J. Corbett McDonald submitted an invoice from the McGill School of Occupational Health for payment of $10,000.00 to be made to McGill for a piece of work carried out by Prof. McDonald for Imperial Tobacco. $10,000.00 represented a significant sum of money in 1988, but since millions of dollars of tobacco industry profits were at stake, Imperial Tobacco was perfectly happy to pay McGill this amount for its services.

The piece of work commissioned by Imperial Tobacco was to critique a 4-page article,  “Mortality attributable to tobacco use in Canada”, which had just been published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health. The lead author, Neil Collishaw, a Canadian public health hero, exposed the appalling harm to health that tobacco was causing. In the article, Collishaw and his fellow authors concluded that in recent years at least a quarter of all deaths among persons aged 35-84 in Canada were attributable to tobacco use – comprising some 33,000 deaths in 1983 and some 35,000 in 1985 .

The article was displeasing to the tobacco industry, as it threatened their profits. Imperial Tobacco therefore set about seeking ways to create doubt about the scientific information in Collishaw’s article so as to undermine its impact in order to sabotage efforts by the Canadian government to bring in measures to control tobacco use. To assist them in this endeavour, they commissioned Prof. McDonald to provide them with ammunition.

At the end of his letter, Prof. McDonald wrote:

PS “I would wish to emphasis (sic) that there must be no publication of any part of this review under our name, and if any part of it should be published no reference should be made to us by name.”

Prof. McDonald and the asbestos industry

Prof. McDonald and McGill received more than a million dollars from the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association to carry out research on whether chrysotile asbestos posed a threat to health of workers. Chrysotile asbestos represents 95% of all asbestos ever sold in the world. Prof. McDonald concluded that workers could be exposed to high levels of chrysotile asbestos and that this would not harm their health. In 1972, Prof. McDonald appeared at regulatory hearings by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) in the U.S. and argued against changing the regulations so as to lower the level of asbestos fibres to which workers were allowed to be exposed. In spite of the fact that his research was funded by the asbestos industry and that he worked closely with an asbestos industry front organisation (the Institute of Occupational & Environmental Health), Prof. McDonald kept this information hidden in his presentation to OSHA. In fact, Prof. McDonald categorically denied that he had any connection whatsoever with the asbestos industry. This was categorically untrue.

Prof. McDonald’s research and his denial of harm caused by chrysotile asbestos is still cited today by the asbestos industry so as to promote continued use of asbestos in developing countries.

The Research Integrity Officer of McGill University is currently reviewing whether Prof. McDonald’s research and conduct violated McGill’s Regulations on the Conduct of Research. These regulations state:

 “with academic freedom comes the responsibility to ensure that all research and scholarship:

– is informed by the principles of honesty, integrity, trust, accountability and collegiality;

– meets high scientific and ethical standards;

– is conducted with honest and thoughtful inquiry, rigorous analysis, and accountability for the use of professional standards; and

– seeks to increase knowledge in ways that do not harm but which benefit society.”

 Kathleen Ruff

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