A history of denialism – Part II – Tobacco companies

To continue to explain how terribly misguided Mooney and Nisbet are about ignoring denialist campaigns I think it’s time to go over the history of one of the most effective denialist campaigns ever. That is the concerted effort by the major tobacco companies (RJ Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, Lorillard, Phillip Morris, and British American Tobacco) to spread misinformation about the health risks associated with smoking.

Fortunately for those who study denialism, one of the results of the Tobacco Master Settlement all the internal memos of four of the largest tobacco companies have been released to the public and exist as free searchable databases.

Within these documents one can find some true gems of denialist strategy second only to Wedge Document for their unintentional disclosure of their dishonest tactics. For instance from “NEW DIRECTIONS” A presentation of the tobacco institute staff June 25th, 1981:


And this gem from Brown and Williamson “Smoking and Health Proposal” from 1969:


Throughout these documents you see a similar theme every time. Science comes out that is harmful to their profits, such as the 1964 Surgeon General’s report on tobacco and health was to be opposed no matter what the results. The writing is schizophrenic, while they seem to be convinced of their righteousness and the safety of smoking, they write about actively pursuing and eliminating the carcinogens in tobacco smoke, making filters that will be safer, and consider strategies of admitting to the danger of cigarette smoke. As the science becomes more damning they just shift the message to one of righteousness of personal liberty while their own research confirmed the risks to nonsmokers from environmental tobacco smoke.

What does this have to do with Mooney and Nisbet telling us to ignore the cranks like the DI or the Heartland Institute? It shows that even when the majority of people understand and believe the science – for instance the evidence showing cigarettes cause cancer has been believed by around 90% of Americans for decades – well-funded denialist campaigns can still be highly effective in disrupting appropriate regulation, legislation, and dissemination of accurate public health information.

Global warming denialists using some of the same think tanks the tobacco companies used, and even some of the same shills such as Steven Milloy and Fred Singer (now working for the Heartland Institute) are capable of waging the same kind of war on legitimate science as they did for the tobacco companies. Only after years of work from public health authorities, scientists and interest groups, as well as vicious fighting over legislation, civil litigation and the actions of whistleblowers were the tobacco companies largely declawed in their campaign against scientific truth. It certainly wasn’t by ignoring them, and letting them act unopposed, or letting the polls dictate a non-existent victory that they were finally defeated. And that is the danger of the message we’re currently getting from the framers. It’s the worst possible strategy for opposing denialism, it’s dangerous, historically-ignorant, and will lead to disaster.

Despite the fact that the majority of Americans believed in the link between cigarettes and cancer the the tobacco companies’ denialist campaign worked for a long time, and here’s how they did it…

In the past decade, multiple researchers working in public health have published in journals like JAMA and Lancet describing how the tobacco companies were successful in challenging responsible regulation and disclosure of health risks in the US and worldwide through a careful campaign of disinformation.

One of the most basic methods of opposing proper health regulation is to have shills in the media that will promote a pro-industry message. The tobacco companies performed this by using a paid network of journalists and right wing think tanks that would release tobacco-friendly misinformation and oppose anti-tobacco legislation all while hiding the monetary connections between the industry and their shills to give the appearance of independence. These connections were then discovered with careful study of tobacco company documents:

Documents show that Philip Morris’ aims to influence journalistic coverage of “EPA bashing” and “corruption” were carried out discreetly, in part, by a Washington, DC, media and political consultant Richard T. Hines. Hines served as a state legislator in the South Carolina House of Representatives and held several executive positions in the Reagan administration. Hines also assisted the second Bush administration’s presidential campaign [41]. In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported that Hines may have helped candidate George W. Bush win the South Carolina primary by funding the “Keep It Flying” Political Action Committee, a pro-Confederate flag group that sent out 250,000 letters criticizing Senator John McCain before the primary election [42].

In March 1993, Thomas Collamore, Philip Morris’ vice president of corporate affairs policy and administration, reported to Steve Parrish, vice president and general counsel of Philip Morris, that “Richard [Hines] is responsible for a number of articles that have appeared in … major news publications regarding EPA and ETS” [43]. Hines worked with Philip Morris to develop “a network of receptive journalists, television commentators, and editorialists” thereby getting Philip Morris’ messages out to a “selected network of journalists” [44]. Hines asserted that by using this approach, “[W]e have been able to get favorable articles/commentaries in major publications … and reach millions of the public through numerous syndicated columnists that are in our network” [44]. Another Philip Morris internal memo stated that Hines “works with Tom Borelli [director of science and environmental policy at Philip Morris] to generate articles critical of EPA science including ETS” [45]. Hines invoiced Philip Morris at least US$200,000 in 1992 [46], the year the last draft and final risk assessment was released, and was budgeted for US$140,000 in 1993 [47].

The list of names and organizations that Hines recruited will appear familiar to anyone studying denialism. You see the Reason Foundation, Cato, CEI, Heritage and famous denialists like Michael Fumento being sponsored by the right-wing National Journalism Center and money from Phillip Morris to generate an anti-ETS message. This is despite the fact that the tobacco company’s own research demonstrated ETS health risk and their internal efforts to decrease the hazard and irritation from “sidestream smoke”. They even proposed a strategy in the top secret “Operation Rainmaker” memo to buy a major media outlet to further challenge the science.

But it didn’t end with journalists, the cigarette companies also funded a small cohort of shill scientists, again hiding their connections to their agents through dishonest tactics:

The Center for Indoor Air Research (CIAR), a nonprofit organization funded by the tobacco industry, played an essential role in developing “stronger arguments” to support the industry’s position that ETS represented an insignificant health risk.11 CIAR was founded in March 1988, allegedly for the purpose of “sponsoring high quality research on indoor air issues and to facilitate the communication of research findings to the broad scientific community.”17 Founding members of CIAR included Philip Morris, R. J. Reynolds, and Lorillard.17

ETS consultants embarked on various activities under the industry’s direction, including (1) attending and presenting papers at selected ETS symposia and conferences32-34; (2) writing op-ed pieces in top-tier newspapers and magazines such as The New York Times, The Washington Times, and Newsweek33,35,36; (3) submitting comments to the EPA and the CIAR Scientific Advisory Board on the draft 1990 EPA report33; and (4) engaging in media tours (labeled “Truth Squad” tours) designed, seemingly, to discredit the EPA and its ETS risk assessment.32,33,37-39

Industry scientific consultants were also used to infiltrate international public health conferences addressing ETS, including the 6th and 8th World Conferences on Tobacco or Health.40,41 Documents show that Japan Tobacco, Inc, sought to “change the very nature and tone” of the 1987 world conference by having approximately 40 scientists attend and present “neutral” papers:

Using their cherry picked research, creating fake scientific journals as described here in the Lancet, funding manufacturing associations and through the formation of astroturf interest groups they were able to stall enforcement of workplace safety regulations designed to reduce exposure to ETS. This was a strategy seen again and again, that while they acknowledged internally that the fight was ultimately futile – their own research showed the carcinogenicity of ETS – their denialist strategy was successful in largely discrediting the 1992 EPA report on ETS and delaying implementation of workplace and public restrictions on EPA.

This is a common thread among denialists. The tobacco companies in their early campaigns against regulation with the Surgeon General’s report in the 60s sought to oppose the link between tobacco and any health problem. As this position became unpopular and increasingly untenable they successively back off their most extreme claims while still trying to generate doubt about the science they were opposed too. As ETS became the issue they implemented their Sand in the Gears policy of creating delays in implementing public health policy. While they say they’re just interested in the truth and seem to even believe it at times, their actions demonstrate they are only interested in one thing – the destruction of any scientific claim they see as a threat to their ideology.

We see the same strategies being implemented now by the DI and the Heartland Institute, and even some of the same organizations and people being employed. How can the framers possibly tell us to ignore this simply because they’re currently behind in the polls? How did they fall behind in the polls? Was it from ignoring them or fighting them back every step of the way? Only one strategy has consistently worked against these denialist campaigns. We need a continued and concerted effort in discrediting their misinformation, exposing their methods and lies, and ultimately fighting them in the press, the courts and the legislatures as needed.