Abuse of libel laws and a sacking: The gagging of public health experts in France

Success in tobacco control will not happen without public health champions speaking freely and honestly to the public. As professor Gérard Dubois explains below, there is real danger these voices are being silenced.

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Gérard Dubois MD MPH
Public Health. University hospital. 80000 Amiens. France

As is happening in the UK, France is beginning to experience an abuse of the libel laws. In 2009, through my role as professor of public health at Amiens University Hospital, I stated on French TV that cigarettes kill two smokers a year for every tobacconist. As a result, I am being sued by the French tobacconists’ union. The irony is that in June 2009 I received a “Knowledge for the World” award from the Johns Hopkins Alumni Association for making the very same claim. (1) I also chair the Alliance Prévention Alcool, a charity established in June 2010 to federate the organizations that oppose dangerous and inconsistent policies. Indeed, this is a serious challenge in France. For example, in June 2009, the Government issued new laws to “improve” the healthcare system but it also allowed for advertising of alcohol on the internet – the favoured media of young people. This nearly nullified ‘Evin’s law’ issued in 1991 to ban or limit alcohol advertising in traditional media and during sports events.(2)

Since 2006, Dr Alain Braillon had been a senior tenured consultant in my unit at Amiens, until his surprise sacking last December when his position, as head of the regional body for the assessment of professional practices, was abolished by a few members voting through an unscheduled agenda item at the hospital board meeting. Known as a “high profile expert on public health”(4) he had been in charge of several regional programmes, such as hepatitis B prevention, smoking cessation in pregnancy and suicide prevention, that were all brutally terminated by the director of the Regional Health Administration. Braillon has also taken a high profile stand on many public health issues, not only the law which allowed the advertising of alcohol on the internet, but also the controversial practice of population screening of prostate cancer.(3) The chairman of the French Public Health society said “This is the first case of the sacking of a public health expert that I have heard of.”(4).

France’s National Management Centre of the Ministry of Health unfairly investigated Braillon’s case to confirm the sacking. There were several breaches of the Freedom of Information Act and no evidence was heard from either myself or Braillon. Nevertheless the majority of the members of its advisory body, the National Statutory Committee, advised against the sacking. However, the National Management Centre overturned this advice. This rollercoaster ride of overturning decisions is highly unusual – the coincidence is exceptional!

Earlier this year, the Health and Sport Minister Roselyne Bachelot said she was shocked when British American Tobacco announced it was dropping the price of a pack of 20 cigarettes in France from €5.50 to €5.30 for two of its brands, Rothmans and Lucky Strike. Her calls for a tax increase in order to prevent young people from smoking were ignored.  The Elysée (The French White House) consistently supports the tobacco, alcohol and online gambling industries but ignores the best evidence to reduce the health burden on the French people.

From more background on this story please see Healthwatch, issue 79, Oct 2010.

1 One Wise Man Rewarded. Johns Hopkins Magazine, June 2008. See: http://www.jhu.edu/~jhumag/0608web/alumnews.html
2 Braillon A, Dubois G. Web-based intervention and alcohol: who is upside down? Alcohol Alcohol 2010;45 :103. See: http://alcalc.oxfordjournals.org/content/45/1/103.full?keytype=ref&ijkey=6PUMODWWj0O43
3 Braillon A, Dubois G, Zielinski O. Screening for prostate  cancer: a public campaign, evidence-based-medicine and conflicting interests. Eur J Public Health 2009;19:222. See: http://eurpub.oxfordjournals.org/content/19/2/222.full?cited-by=yes&legid=eurpub;19/2/222
4 Benkimoun P. Doctor’s sacking is setback for French public health, supporters say. BMJ 2010; 340:c711. See: http://www.bmj.com/content/ 340/bmj.c711.full?sid=117b18ac-43ef-4f2f-9d0d-0dacba2b0919

  • Simon Chapman

    Gerard — that your benign comment should result in a law suit is scandalous. I am certain that the global tobacco control and epidemiological communities will be able to provide you with the very highest of expert testimony to corroborate your claim. Do not hesitate to request such assistance should you need it.
    Simon Chapman

  • Les Rose

    Did not the French government own shares in a tobacco company? I have the recollection but can't find any evidence on the net

  • Anonymous Afraid

    The question looks wise. The answer is definitively NO
    1) Snails leave tracks, not this species
    2) Shares are only for tip. And here you can only see the tip of the iceberg.
    Below is a story that may help you to understand parts of a hidden world.
    Manhattan U.S. Attorney Charges French Doctor for Insider Trading Securities Fraud: The quintessential insider, according to JANICE K. FEDARCYK, was arrested on Monday November the 2th, by the FBI … For more :
    http://newyork.fbi.gov/dojpressrel/pressrel10/nyfo110210a.htm

  • secondhand smoker

    Not dead yet

  • http://www.smokegeniecigs.com/

    Well researched article and interested you have..keep posting

  • The idea that increasing the price to push people in the right direction of cessation is a difficult idea for many to swallow. However, tobacco companies lower the price so as to help their customer base, which also builds brand loyalty – (with friends like these, who needs enemies).

  • P J R Harkin

    So, “The Elysée…” is “… (The French White House)”

    What's a White House?

  • Al'sacked

    New articles in French (including Le Canard Enchainé, the French Private Eye) , Spanish and German

    http://www.actionconsommation….
    Santé publique au Pilori. Action consomation 17 janv 11
    http://href.fr/canard081210.pd
    Et au milieu coule la Santé publique. Le Canard Enchainé 8 Déc 10
    http://csht.medicalistes.org/I
    Pourquoi faut-il sauver le soldat Braillon ? Pr Jacques Fabry Risques et Qualité Janvier 2010
    http://www.sofgres.org/AB_Char
    Les empêcheurs de tuer en rond, espèce menacée. Roger Lenglet. Charlie Hebdo 7 avril 2010.
    http://www.atoute.org/n/articl
    Public à ta santé. Dominique Dupagne 15fev 2010
    http://href.fr/32pj.pdf
    Quel avenir pour la santé publique. La Revue Prescrire. Juin 2010
    http://href.fr/pm50.pdf
    Haro sur la Santé publique Marie Kayser.. Pratiques. Juillet 2010
    http://www.sofgres.org/AB_Pano
    Quelle santé publique dans les CHU ? Pr Dubois Panorama du Médecin. 8 Fev 2010
    http://href.fr/CourPic22dec10….
    Un médecin évincé car « peu rentable » il rapporte 2 fois son salaire à l’hôpital. Courrier Picard 22 déc 2010

    http://blogs.bmj.com/tc/2010/1
    BMJ Group blogs, Nov 2010. The gagging of public health experts in France
    http://href.fr/healthwatch_oct
    Healtwatch Oct 2010. Whistleblowing and abuse of libel law in France
    http://www.bmj.com/content/340/bmj.c7...
    BMJ Feb 2010. Doctor’s sacking is setback for French public health

    http://www.tlaxcala-int.org/ar
    FRANCIA: ¿La sanidad pública en la picota?

    http://www.tlaxcala-int.org/ar
    FRANKREICH: Gehört die Volksgesundheit an den Schandpfahl ?
    28 janvier 2011 03:59