PARIS—In what one lawyer called a “historical ruling,” a French court yesterday sentenced prominent pulmonologist Michel Aubier to a suspended 6-month prison sentence and a €50,000 fine for lying under oath to a French Senate committee. Aubier declared he had no conflicts of interest while testifying about the health risks of air pollution 2 years ago, but newspapers later revealed that he had been on the payroll of oil company Total for many years.
His case is the first in which lying to the French Senate has led to a criminal conviction. The sentence went well beyond the €30,000 fine requested by the prosecutor.
Aubier, 69, was head of the pulmonology department at the renowned Bichat-Claude Bernard Hospital in Paris until September 2016; he also served as a pulmonology professor at Paris Diderot University and was a research director at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research. In April 2015, Aubier represented a group of public hospitals in Paris named AP-HP at a Senate hearing aimed at establishing the impact of air pollution on public health. Under oath, he declared that he had "no links of interest with the economic actors" relevant to that issue.
But in March 2016, French newspapers Le Canard Enchaîné and Libération revealed that Aubier had received payments from Total since 1997, including more than €100,000 annually between 2012 and 2015, as well as Total shares worth an estimated €150,000. In return, he looked after the health of company executives and advised them on public and occupational health issues, the company told Libération. Aubier also sat on the board of the Total Foundation, an unpaid position. AP-HP, his principal employer, had been left unaware of any of these ties.
In media appearances, Aubier has often made statements at odds with the scientific mainstream that appeared to downplay the risks of air pollution. In March 2016, after he declared that “air pollution is not carcinogenic except at very high exposures, and mostly in the case of smokers,” a group of doctors wrote an outraged rebuttal.
This case is a shocking illustration of the denial about conflicts of interest that dominates in French medical elites.”
During the Senate hearing, Aubier stated that the link between lung cancer and air pollution, including diesel fumes, was “extremely weak” and ”very much debated.” But Bruno Housset, a former chair of the French-Language Pulmonology Society and a professor at the Intercommunity Hospital Center Créteil just outside Paris, points out that the International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon classified diesel fumes as carcinogenic in 2012, and atmospheric pollution in general in 2013. "There is a broad consensus on this in the scientific community," Housset says, but "there is always some doubt-mongering by lobbies.”
Aubier did not attend yesterday's sentencing and declined to respond to questions from ScienceInsider. His lawyer, François Saint-Pierre, says Aubier is “very affected” by the trial and feels “stigmatized” by the media. Aubier is considering an appeal, says Saint-Pierre, who called the whole issue “a misunderstanding.” He says Aubier believes his work for Total didn't affect his views on air pollution.
During the sentencing hearing, Judge Evelyne Sire-Marin emphasized the gravity of lying about issues of public interest. She noted that Aubier had also failed to disclose his contracts with Total and several pharmaceutical companies to the French National Authority for Health, a government advisory body to which he was appointed in 2015. (He was suspended in April 2016.)
“This case is a shocking illustration of the denial about conflicts of interest that dominates in French medical elites,” says Irène Frachon, a pulmonologist at the University Hospital of Brest who in 2009 blew the whistle on conflicts of interest at France's drug regulatory agency that helped keep a toxic diabetes drug named Médiator on the market, leading to more than 1000 deaths.
Environmental groups were satisfied with the verdict. "We hope this ruling will be a message to all the other Michel Aubiers that exist both in France and in Europe, and who accept to compromise with industry for money,” says a spokesperson for Générations Futures and Ecologie Sans Frontières, two groups that were among the plaintiffs.