Top German researchers have been paid off by the tobacco industry to play down the health effects of smoking, a study says. Meanwhile, the federal government is fighting an EU ban on tobacco advertising.
Germany has the EU's highest percentage of female smokers
Some 37 percent of Germans smoke, one of the highest levels in the European Union. Among women smokers, Germany is at the very top. According to health experts, one of the reasons for this is the fact that many of the country's most renowned public health experts long played down the damaging effects of lighting up -- often because they were in the pay of large tobacco concerns.
The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, says many experts worked hand in hand since the 1970's with firms such as R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris to "manipulate and skew" the mounting evidence that smoking could be deadly, largely because they received research money from the cigarette manufacturers.
The leading author of the study, Berlin researcher Thilo Grüning, cites the example of one of German medicine's biggest names, Fritz Kemper, long-time professor at the University of Münster, talented toxicologist, and member of Germany's top medical committees. In 2002, he received the Große Verdienstkreuz, one of Germany's highest civilian honors.
But Grüning also found that Kemper was a key scientific ally to Big Tobacco. In one year, according to internal documents the study examined, he received $20,000 dollars from R.J. Reynolds, the maker of Camel cigarettes, for informing the multinational about the activities of German scientists and politicians in the area of tobacco.
Influence on study results
After the United States, Germany was one of the most important bases for the tobacco lobby. As early as 1975, the cigarette industry association VDC founded a "research council on smoking and health." But the committee turned out to be less than independent and due to the purse strings attached to the millions going to the committee, the tobacco industry had "a significant influence" on the results the panel of top health experts released.
Smoking rates in Germany are higher than they should be, experts say
If investigations into the effects of tobacco smoking did not fit the desires of the industry, results were often played down. For example, Franz Adlkofer, a leading German tobacco researcher, assured his colleagues in the US that one study about nicotine as a carcinogenic would be "hidden," another studied would "guaranteed not be published."
Martina Pötschke-Langer, head of the Center for Tobacco Control at the World Health Organization in Heidelberg, told the newsmagazine Der Spiegel that the roll of leading German health experts in covering up the harmful effects of tobacco was "shocking."
"Presumably many fewer people would die today from tobacco if medical professionals would have taken the results they found on the consequences of smoking seriously," she said.
So for, only one German research institute, the Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, passed an ethical code banning it from accepting funding from the tobacco industry. That was just at the beginning of November -- this year.
Germany fights EU ban
Meanwhile, the tobacco industry continues to enjoy something of a comfortable position in Germany as the new government continues to fight against an EU ban on all tobacco advertising that the predecessor government under Gerhard Schröder began. The government will make its position clear when the case is argued before the European Court of Justice on Tuesday.
Since July, newspaper, radio and Internet sites across the EU are prohibitted from advertising tobacco products. However, the ban is being effectively ignored by many countries, including Germany.
R1 Cigarette advertisement billboard, Germany, photo 2000/10/5
A spokesman for the government said the case is not about the health effects of smoking, but whether the EU has the right to pass a ban against national advertising that does not cross international borders. According to Berlin, the EU's jurisdiction does not extend to domestic advertising.
But David Byrne, a former EU health commissioner, says Germany in particular is in need of stricter rules on tobacco ads.
"In Germany, 37 percent of the population smokes and there are lax regulations on tobacco advertising," he said. "In Sweden there are stronger laws and only 19 percent of the population smokes." The German newspaper and magazine publishing associations are also opposed to the ban, saying they fear that the advertising ban could lead to similar bans in other industries. It is the second time the German government has gone before the EU's highest court to argue against the ban. A decision is expected in 2006.