“In 1994, heads of the major U.S. tobacco companies testified before Congress that the evidence that cigarette smoking caused diseases such as cancer and heart disease was inconclusive, that cigarettes were not addictive, and that they did not market to children. Less than 1 month after this testimony, a box containing confidential documents from the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation was delivered to the University of California at San Francisco. What was revealed in these documents was evidence that the tobacco industry had for decades known and accepted the fact that cigarettes caused premature death, considered tobacco to be addictive, and that their programs to support scientific research on smoking and health had been a sham.
In 1999, the federal government filed its own suit against the tobacco industry for violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. In August 2006, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler concluded that “…the tobacco companies conspired to violate the substantive provisions of RICO…and…in fact violated those substantive provisions”. The question of when tobacco companies knew or should have known about the serious health consequences of smoking goes to the very question of whether or not there was a real cigarette controversy.
Evidence linking smoking and cancer appeared in the 1920s . Between 1920 and 1940, a chemist named Angel Honorio Roffo published several articles showing that cancers could be experimentally induced by exposure to tars from burned tobacco. Roffo et al. further showed that cancer could be induced by using nicotine-free tobacco, which means that tar, with or without nicotine, was carcinogenic. Research implicating smoking as a cause of cancer began to mount during the 1950s, with several landmark publications in leading medical journals. The first official U.S. government statement on smoking and health was issued by the Surgeon General Leroy Burney in a televised press conference in 1957, wherein he reported that the scientific evidence supported cigarette smoking as a causative factor in the etiology of lung cancer. By 1960, Joseph Garland, Editor of the New England Journal, wrote, “No responsible observer can deny this association, and the evidence is now sufficiently strong to suggest a causative role”.
In their public statements, tobacco companies held that cigarettes had not been proven to be injurious to health. For example, a November 1953 press release issued by the American Tobacco Company stated, “…no one has yet proved that lung cancer in any human being is directly traceable to tobacco or its products in any form”. In a New York Times story based on this press release, the headline states that Mr. Hahn (President of the American Tobacco Company) characterizes the evidence of a link between cigarette smoking and an increase in the incidence of lung cancer as “Loose Talk”. In 1954, Philip Morris Vice President George Weissman announced that if the company had any thought or knowledge that in any way we were selling a product harmful to consumers, that they would stop business immediately. Senior scientists and executives at tobacco companies, however, knew about the potential cancer risk of smoking as early as the 1940s, and most accepted the fact that smoking caused cancer by the late 1950s.
A 1962 report by the R.J. Reynolds scientist Dr. Alan Rodgman characterized the amount of evidence accumulated to indict cigarette smoking as a health risk as “overwhelming,” whereas the evidence challenging such an indictment was “scant”.
In her decision regarding the allegation that the tobacco companies had violated RICO, Judge Kessler observed that the trial record amply showed a conspiracy to make false, deceptive, and misleading public statements about cigarettes and smoking from at least January 1954, when the Frank Statement was published, up to the present. The “Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers” was a jointly sponsored advocacy advertisement published by tobacco manufacturers in January 1954. The advertisement appeared in 448 newspapers in 258 cities, reaching over 43 million Americans. The advertisement questioned research findings implicating smoking as a cause of cancer, promised consumers that their cigarettes were safe, and pledged to support impartial research to investigate allegations that smoking was harmful to human health.
The tobacco documents reveal how the tobacco industry worked together since the early 1950s to create a pro-cigarette public relations campaign to mislead the public about the dangers of smoking to advance their collective interest to market cigarettes.
In 1955, Dr. Clarence Little, the first Scientific Director of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC), appeared on the Edward R. Murrow show and was asked, “Dr. Little have any cancer-causing agents been identified in cigarettes?” Dr. Little replied, “No. None whatever, either in cigarettes or in any product of smoking, as such.” Dr. Little was also asked, “Suppose the tremendous amount of research going on were to reveal that there is a cancer causing agent in cigarettes, what then?” Dr. Little replied, “It would be made public immediately and just as broadly as we could make it, and then efforts would be taken to attempt to remove that substance or substances”.
From 1964 onward, the Tobacco Institute (TI) frequently made reference to the fact that qualified scientists challenged the evidence that smoking caused disease. Yet, many of these so-called independent scientists were recruited and had their research programs supported by the tobacco industry. For example, in 1970, the TI sponsored the “Truth” public service campaign that informed the public that there was a scientific controversy about whether smoking caused disease. The “Truth” campaign encouraged people to contact the TI to get a copy of a “White Paper” that included quotes from scientists challenging the evidence that smoking caused the disease. Lawyer-controlled “special project accounts” were used to recruit and support scientists who were willing to make statements and/or conduct research that would be favourable to the industry’s view that causes other than smoking were responsible for lung cancer and other diseases.
Internal documents from the industry acknowledge that TIRC/CTR was largely a public relations asset for them rather than a real research endeavour to address the smoking and health controversy. A 1970 letter from Helmut Wakeham, then Vice President of the Corporate Research and Development at Philip Morris, to the President of the TI summed up this view: “nobody believes we are interested in the truth on this subject; and the fact that a multi-billion dollar industry has put up 30 million dollars for this over a ten-year period cannot be impressive to a public which at the same time is told we spend upwards of 300 million dollars in one year on advertising”.
The tobacco company conspiracy to manufacture a false controversy about smoking and health is summarized in a 1972 TI memorandum, which defined the strategy as consisting of three parts: (a) “creating doubt about the health charge without actually denying it”; (b) “advocating the public’s right to smoke, without actually urging them to take up the practice”; and (c) “encouraging objective scientific research as the only way to resolve the question of the health hazard”. In her analysis of the purpose of the industry’s jointly funded “research” organizations, Judge Kessler observed that they had helped the industry achieve its goals because they “sponsored and funded research that attacked scientific studies demonstrating harmful effects of smoking cigarettes but did not itself conduct research addressing the fundamental questions regarding the adverse health effects of smoking”.
The internal industry documents show how tobacco companies deliberately confused the public debate about smoking and health by creating and supporting research organizations that were never really interested in discovering the truth about whether smoking was a cause of disease.
In October 1999, Philip Morris Tobacco Company announced to the public on its web site that, “There is an overwhelming medical and scientific consensus that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema and other serious disease in smokers”. However, when shareholders proposed a resolution asking the company to produce a report on how it intended to correct the defects that resulted in its products causing disease, the company responded that the shareholder’s resolution had “… mischaracterizes the Company’s web site as constituting a public admission that cigarettes cause illness. It does not.”. Today, all of the major tobacco companies have web sites acknowledging that smoking is a cause of disease. However, the current web site statement of R.J. Reynolds on the health effects of smoking continues to insist that smoking “causes disease in some individuals” only “in combination with other factors”. In the courtroom, the companies continue to challenge allegations about nicotine addiction and smoking causing illness. The tobacco companies have not yet been able to bring themselves to accept responsibility for their past illegal acts.
It does not seem that the tobacco industry has changed since the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement but instead has found alternative ways to support research and create controversy about the health risks of smoking. For example, in the 2006 US election, the tobacco industry spent over US$100 million dollars opposing state-initiated proposals to limit smoking in public places and raise cigarette taxes. It is not sufficient for the tobacco industry to merely concede the obvious point that smoking is a cause of disease when it is evident that decades of misinformation has resulted in a public that is massively ignorant about the risks of smoking low-tar cigarettes, nicotine addiction, and secondhand smoke exposure. Moreover, claims by tobacco companies that they are involved in sponsoring programs to help smokers to quit and discourage youth from taking up smoking must be seriously questioned in light of recent findings that show that these programs have no beneficial effect and may potentially be iatrogenic. There remains a need for public education efforts to correct consumer misperceptions about the risks of smoking along with government oversight to ensure that industry is not permitted to use its vast marketing resources to continue to mislead the public. Universities should also consider adopting policies that prohibit their faculty from accepting funding from tobacco companies. The implication of Judge Kessler’s ruling is clear: the tobacco companies cannot and should not be trusted.”
The similarities between this and the campaign of misinformation regarding climate change cannot be missed. Any organisation who accepts money from the tobacco industry – the Heartland Institute, the Institute of Public Affairs, the Liberal Party – must be regarded with suspicion. Surprisingly enough, or not, these same organisations receive huge funding from mining companies and they are all against action on climate change. Any ‘scientist’ who associates themselves with the Heartland Institute will be tainted by their lack of ethics and obvious vested interest.
Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.