Tobacco Companies’ Expert Doctors Gave Biased Views, Study Says

Six doctors gave scientifically invalid and ethically questionable testimony when serving as expert witnesses on behalf of the biggest U.S. tobacco companies in court cases from 2009 to 2014, a study says.

The otolaryngologists -- doctors who treat ear, nose and throat conditions -- testified or provided depositions in more than 50 Florida lawsuits for R.J. Reynolds, a unit of Reynolds American Inc.; Altria Group Inc.’s Philip Morris unit; and Lorillard Inc., purchased by Reynolds last month, according to the paper published in the journal Laryngoscope.

A review by Robert Jackler, chair of otolaryngology and head and neck surgery at Stanford University School of Medicine, found that five of the doctors detailed numerous environmental and genetic causes that could have caused an individual’s cancer, even though published studies show tobacco is the leading cause of such malignancies. A sixth questioned whether a plaintiff was really addicted since the plaintiff was able to quit smoking after going to the hospital with breathing difficulty.

Philip Morris took issue with the study.

“We believe that out-of-court attempts to criticize experts for testifying on behalf of defendants in these cases have no place in our judicial system,” said William Phelps, a spokesman for Philip Morris USA.

David Howard and Bryan Hatchell, both spokesmen for R.J. Reynolds, didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.

Stanford Research Group

Jackler is founder of the group Stanford Research Into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising, through which he has written earlier papers scrutinizing the role of doctors in tobacco lawsuits.

The opinions given by the tobacco industry’s expert witnesses reveals a “systemic bias” in interpreting the scientific evidence, Jackler’s report says. Some of the experts pointed to other potential causes, including the use of mouthwash, diesel fuel, salted fish, drinking and living in the city, and said heavy smokers who gave up the habit should have had no more risk than non-smokers.

“The testimony looked like peas in a pod,” Jackler said in a telephone interview. “In case after case, these physician experts testified that smoking was not the cause of these heavy smokers’ cancers. I was deeply disturbed that these physicians gave biased testimony, exonerating tobacco as the cause of cancer in these dying patients.”

Florida Ruling

The lawsuits were all part of a series of cases being heard in Florida, where the state Supreme Court set aside a record $145 billion class-action verdict against the industry in 2006 and told thousands of smokers to sue individually. Each had to prove his or her unique cancer was caused by smoking and that he or she was addicted, thus creating the need for expert testimony.

One doctor received almost $100,000 for preparing and testifying in one case, or $750 an hour, he said in a 2009 deposition posted on the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library and footnoted in Jackler’s report. The average medical expert witness earns $555 an hour, according to a 2012 survey of 1,030 people who worked in the industry, conducted by Seak Inc., a continuing education, publishing and consulting company that trains professionals for the business.

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