In its issue on 6 June 6 2005, the German magazine Der Spiegel published a report on research sponsored by the tobacco industry in the 1980ies and a related attempt to influence research results in their favour.
My name has been cited in this context. In an attempt to clarify respective criticisms and following my analysis of the internal documents of the tobacco industry I provide the following declaration dated 14 June 2005.
In addition, several quotations from my scientific publications concerning the topic 'smoking and health' are given (download).
Extent and aim of research funding by the tobacco industry
It is correct that I have asked for and received research money from the tobacco industry and from a scientific foundation sponsored by the tobacco industry (research foundation 'Smoking and Health') in the 1980ies. In 1981 I received a grant of 50,000 DM from Reynolds Tobacco Company, and a similar amount in 1984 from the Swiss Association of Cigarette Manufacturers. In 1987 I sent a research application to the German foundation 'Smoking and Health' and was awarded 300,000 DM. This foundation supported a large number of national and international scientists involved in research on smoking and health. Applications were peer-reviewed by external referees, and a board of established scientists including a representative of the German Ministry of Health made funding decisions.
This research money was used in the frame of a prospective epidemiological study on associations of working conditions with coronary heart disease in blue collar workers. At that time, it was extremely difficult to conduct such an expensive and long lasting research project in the field of medical sociology and health sciences without additional financial support. However, this research project was essentially funded by peer reviewed grants from public sources.
The additional funds received in 1981 were used for medical data acquisition and personnel support during baseline screening of the a.m. study. The additional funds received in 1984 were used for complementary statistical analyses of data which were available at that time. The funds received in 1987 were used for the final examination of the blue collar cohort after a mean observation period of 6.5 years.
I have accepted funds from the tobacco industry on the basis of their confirmation that I would have total scientific freedom with regard to the design of my study and the publication of its results. I followed these principles. I have never "soft peddled the dangers of smoking" as the report in Der Spiegel indirectly alleged. To the contrary, our nationally and internationally published research results provide additional evidence on the health adverse effects of smoking (download). According to the rules of good scientific practice I have indicated funding sources including the research foundation 'Smoking and Health' in the final scientific publication (European Heart Journal ' (1992), vol. 13, suppl. D, p. 89-95).
Interest of the tobacco industry
Only recently, I recognized from the internal documents of the tobacco industry that are made public that representatives from this funding industry did not reveal their intentions to me to use scientific results for their own purpose. This is evidenced by several confidential notes that are now open to the public. For instance, a representative of Reynolds Tobacco Company, Dr. Colby, who visited me was quoted as follows: "I [Colby] made it very clear to him [Siegrist] that (…) he, like other scientists which we are sponsoring, would have complete ‚freedom' regarding the results and their publication." He put the word freedom in inverted commas and continued: "Although I am not very hopeful, I believe that with a sufficient effort, Dr. Siegrist could be 'educated'."
In another document it becomes evident what the tobacco industry expected from my 'education': "We also know that the risk of smoking is greatly overestimated. This can be seen from the conventional classification of the risk of smoking within the existing risk structure. If science is to show a way out of this dilemma, new data have to be produced. Our co-operation with researchers like Prof. Siegrist (…) is intended to help us to obtain such data."
In view of these statements the trust I gave to these sponsors seems naïve and I regret having been deceived by them.
Membership in the Scientific Advisory Board of the foundation VERUM
From 1995 to 2004 I was a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the foundation VERUM. This foundation was initiated by the Association of the Cigarette Industry, but, according to its regulations provides grants for research on associations between environment, behaviour and health. Meanwhile, a large amount of available funds comes from the European Commission.
Together with my colleagues our task consisted in reviewing research proposals and attending meetings for funding decisions. I have never taken any fee for this task, except reimbursement of travel costs to meetings and congresses.
Evaluation from today's perspective
From today's perspective my contacts with the tobacco industry and foundations that were close to it must be considered a mistake. In view of the huge health impacts of smoking in a global perspective it is essential that public health research on causes, consequences and preventive efforts operates totally independent of any tobacco industry interest. In order to stress my conviction and to prevent any potential damage from German public health research, I resigned from my office as a spokesman of the North-Rhine-Westphalian public health research network.
When evaluating the above mentioned facts one needs to take into account that the grants accepted from the tobacco industry in the 1980ies represent a very small proportion within the overall volume of research money the large majority of which was provided by national and international public foundations. Smoking was never a main topic in my research which has mainly been - and continues to be - devoted to the impact of social inequalities on health, in particular focussing on the role of work stress. In my scientific work I have always respected the rules of good scientific practice.