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Case #2

Interviews & Key figures

« The University of Zurich sold its academic freedom to Philip Morris »

Why did you take an interest in this affair?

Pascal Diethelm: Having worked on the Rylander affair at the University of Geneva,1 I was particularly interested in interference by the tobacco industry in the research sphere. When I was informed by Australian colleagues in 2015 that a study had been financed by Philip Morris at the University of Zurich (UZH), I immediately decided to find out more. It is widely recognised that studies funded by the tobacco industry systematically generate conclusions favourable to its own interests. So I knew this story needed to be examined in depth. In addition, the results of the Zurich research project had an impact at the international level, manipulating public opinion and sowing doubt as to the usefulness of plain packaging in efforts to combat smoking, thus delaying its introduction in a number of countries. That could not be accepted. 

What was your involvement in the exposure of this scandal?

I first pointed out methodological errors in the two UZH articles. It was evident that the studies had been designed so as not to find any effect of plain packaging in reducing smoking. So Timothy Farley (a WHO statistician) and I reanalysed the data used in these two studies, and we arrived at completely different results: we demonstrated that plain packaging had a statistically significant effect from the first year. Altogether, I co-authored four publications on this subject.2–5

Following my research, I wrote a letter to the Rector of UZH in 2015, requesting the retraction of the two articles published on the University’s website, given that they were marred by serious methodological and ethical problems. In response, the institution commissioned a review by an external expert. Unfortunately, this expert’s task was very narrowly defined, with access to the underlying documents not being provided and questions of ethics and professional conduct being excluded from the review. The affair was subsequently buried by the University.

I had also asked the Rector for access to the contract between UZH and Philip Morris. Although I did receive the main contract, I was denied access to an Annex on the pretext that this was a confidential document. In March 2023, commissioned by the Tobacco Control Fund to document this affair, I contacted UZH again and finally obtained, among other documents, a copy of the Annex to the contract, which turned out to be the crucial element in this whole affair. It’s an incriminating document, both for the researchers involved and for the University.

What changes do you hope to see following the exposure of this affair?

UZH failed to respect the principles of scientific integrity and transparency which are expected of such an institution, and underestimated the seriousness of the affair. I hope that the disclosure of the content of the Annex to the contract will prompt it to make amends. To do so, first of all, it would have to conduct a proper inquiry, complying with the procedure recommended by the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences in their Code of conduct for scientific integrity.6 Also, the two articles would need to be removed from the UZH website, given that they are articles of Philip Morris, which is using this site to publish them. Finally, the institution should declare publicly – like the University of Geneva following the Rylander affair – that it will no longer accept tobacco industry contracts.

In Switzerland, there are significant gaps concerning interference by the tobacco industry in research. I would like this affair to open the eyes of researchers and institutions so that, finally, appropriate measures are taken to restore confidence in our institutions.

(1)   Petit-Pierre MC. L'Université de Genève soutient finalement deux opposants au lobby du tabac. Le Temps. 27 décembre 2002. Disponible sur :

(2)    Diethelm PA, Farley TM. Refuting tobacco-industry funded research: empirical data shows decline in smoking prevalence following introduction of plain packaging in Australia. Tobacco Prevention & Cessation. 2015;1(November):6. doi:10.18332/tpc/60650.

(3)    Diethelm, Pascal & Farley, Timothy. (2017). Re-analysing tobacco industry funded research on the effect of plain packaging on minors in Australia: Same data but different results. Tobacco Prevention & Cessation. 3. 10.18332/tpc/78508.

(4)    Diethelm P, McKee M. Tobacco industry-funded research on standardised packaging: there are none so blind as those who will not see! Tobacco Control 2015;24:e113-e115.

(5)    Laverty AA, Diethelm P, Hopkinson NS, et al. Use and abuse of statistics in tobacco industry-funded research on standardised packaging. Tobacco Control 2015;24:422-424.

(6)    Académies suisses des sciences. Code d’intégrité scientifique. 2021.

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