Tobacco companies obstructed science, history professor says

February 19, 2007

"Doubt is our product," stated a tobacco industry memo from 1969. For half a century, the tobacco industry tried to muddy the link between smoking and cancer. Now, with that effort long since failed, cigarette producers facing dozens of potentially ruinous lawsuits are once again attempting to manufacture doubt.

"The tobacco industry is now trying to win their cases by rewriting history, saying that everyone knew but no one had proof," said Robert N. Proctor, a professor of history at Stanford. "What they're saying is that everyone always knew it was bad for you. So if you started smoking in 1962 or 1972 and later got lung cancer, you have only yourself to blame."

Proctor spoke Feb. 18 during a symposium-"The Sociopolitical Manufacturing of Scientific Ignorance"-at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco.

Proctor claims that by the middle of the 1950s there was a scientific consensus that smoking caused lung cancer. But the tobacco industry fought that finding, both in the public eye and within the scientific community. Tobacco companies funded skeptics, started health reassurance campaigns, ran advertisements in medical journals and researched alternate explanations for lung cancer, such as pollution, asbestos and even the keeping of birds. Denying the case against tobacco was "closed," they called for more research as a tactic to delay regulation.

Drawing from his experiences as an expert witness in tobacco litigation cases, Proctor says that industry lawyers often claim that "government propaganda," such as warnings from the Surgeon General, was so overwhelming that the risks of smoking were universally known. But they excuse the industry's own counter-propaganda by arguing that the scientific community was unable to prove a link between smoking and lung cancer until relatively recently. If true, this lack of proof would absolve the tobacco companies of any blame for deaths caused by smoking and any charges of fraud for their campaign against the link between cancer and cigarettes.

"But if they were lying and if people actually believed their lies," Proctor said, "then the industry can be held liable because they were manufacturing a defective and fraudulent product."

Proctor has used poll results stretching back to the 1940s to show that in fact some people were ignorant of the risks. "Millions of people in the '60s, '70s and '80s didn't know that tobacco caused lung cancer or heart disease," Proctor said. "An increasing number knew, but not everyone knew. And not everyone knew because the industry was manufacturing doubt, fomenting ignorance. Industry executives created a climate of untruth that people bought into and died from."

Proctor also has delved into the phone logs and correspondence records of tobacco companies to look at what consumers were thinking. "Even in the 1970s and '80s, lots of people are writing letters to the industry saying, 'The government is brainwashing me into thinking tobacco is bad, whereas I have a grandmother who lived to be 82 and she smokes, and I've smoked for years and I'm still healthy."'

In an age when nearly everyone knows that smoking causes cancer, it might not seem important to study the ways the tobacco companies sowed doubt. But Big Tobacco's methods have since been exported to other industries. At the same symposium, University of California-San Diego history and science studies Professor Naomi Oreskes will discuss a similar topic in a talk titled "Confounding Science: The Tobacco Road to Global Warming," and journalist Paul Thacker will give a talk titled "Thank You for Polluting: How Campaigns to Create Scientific Confusion Kill Product Regulation."

How can tactics like these undermine the work of so many scientists? Proctor said: "There's a saying in the PR business that for every PhD there's an equal and opposite PhD. And if there's not one then you can create one through funding. And if you put a lot of money into manufacturing ignorance, it can actually work.

"We saw this in tobacco, and we've seen it in polluting industries and global warming," he added. "There are lots of people out there who'd rather have you not know what's really going on."

Source: Stanford University

Explore further: Heated tobacco product claims by tobacco industry scrutinized by researchers

Related Stories

Heated tobacco product claims by tobacco industry scrutinized by researchers

October 23, 2018
Claims by the tobacco industry that heated tobacco products (HTPs) are safer than conventional cigarettes are not supported by the industry's own data and are likely to be misunderstood by consumers, according to research ...

Berry juice processing by-products could reduce the risk of cancer

November 8, 2018
Scientists at Kaunas University of Technology (KTU), Lithuania, are investigating the possibility of using berry pomace to increase the safety of meat products and to mitigate their negative effects on human health. According ...

Philip Morris woos puff-happy Japan for post-smoking era

October 23, 2018
Philip Morris, maker of Marlboro and other major cigarette brands, is maneuvering to keep itself in business in a post-smoking world with an advertising blitz in puff-happy Japan and other tobacco-loving markets.

Rates of premature mortality are two times higher in the most deprived areas of England, compared to most affluent

October 25, 2018
Rates of premature mortality are two times higher in the most deprived areas of England (Blackpool), compared to the most affluent (Wokingham), according to a new comprehensive analysis of health at a local, national and ...

UN treaty cracks down on heated tobacco products

October 6, 2018
Members of a global tobacco treaty took a hard line Saturday on heated tobacco products, agreeing that they should face the same restrictions as cigarettes despite possibly being less deadly.

Comprehensive report says tobacco control must be highest priority in cancer control

October 10, 2018
The highest priority in a national cancer control plan must be expansion of tobacco control—the intervention with the largest potential health benefits—according to a new American Cancer Society report, the second in ...

Recommended for you

How do babies laugh? Like chimps!

November 7, 2018
Few things can delight an adult more easily than the uninhibited, effervescent laughter of a baby. Yet baby laughter, a new study shows, differs from adult laughter in a key way: Babies laugh as they both exhale and inhale, ...

Tongue-in-cheek Nobels honor nutritional analysis of cannibalism, roller-coaster kidney stones treatment

September 14, 2018
A nutritional analysis of cannibalism and treating kidney stones on roller-coasters were research projects honored by tongue-in-cheek awards at Harvard University Thursday, designed to make you laugh first, and think later.

Pediatric robot patient offers new level of realism for doctors in training

September 10, 2018
A team of researchers and engineers at Gaumard Scientific has unveiled a new robot that raises the bar on medical training devices. The robot, called HAL, has been made to look like a five-year-old male patient and offers ...

Why men say they've had more lifetime sexual partners than women

July 25, 2018
The disparity between the number of sexual partners reported by men and women can largely be explained by a tendency among men to report extreme numbers of partners, and to estimate rather than count their lifetime total, ...

Censors jump into action as China's latest vaccine scandal ignites

July 22, 2018
Chinese censors on Sunday deleted articles and postings about the vaccine industry as an online outcry over the country's latest vaccine scandal intensified.

Revenge of a forgotten medical 'genius'

June 30, 2018
It's not an uncommon fate for a pioneering scientist: languishing unrecognised in his time before dying in obscurity. But as his 200th birthday approaches, the life-saving work of a Hungarian obstetrician is finally getting ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.