The Birth of Lies, Incorporated: Tobacco
Lies, Incorporated, was born during a meeting of the titans of the tobacco industry at the Plaza Hotel in New York City on December 15, 1953. In attendance were the presidents of American Tobacco, Benson & Hedges, Philip Morris, and U.S. Tobacco—the four largest tobacco companies at the time—as well as the CEOs of R.J. Reynolds and Brown & Williamson.
Previously, the group had gathered only for social occasions, at charity events and various industry award ceremonies. This meeting had a far more serious agenda. Earlier that month, Dr. Ernst Wynder of the Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research published the findings of a study linking cigarette tar to cancer in mice. The research attracted intense media attention and put a spotlight on the health risks associated with tobacco. Widely read publications including Life
magazine, The New York Times
, and the Reader’s Digest
(in a piece titled “Cancer by the Carton”) had already published major articles on the dangers of smoking. The looming crisis had to be dealt with, and the leading tobacco barons joined forces to fight back.
At the Plaza Hotel meeting, the heads of the tobacco companies met with John Hill, founder of the legendary public relations firm Hill & Knowlton. The company had built its reputation working for chemical companies, big oil, and other heavy industries. Profit was not Hill’s only motivation. He was a committed conservative, opposed to the idea of government regulations, even of carcinogens such as tobacco.
As far back as 1912, Dr. Isaac Adler suggested a link between tobacco and lung cancer in the “world’s first monograph on lung cancer,” while indicating more research was needed, as his conclusions were “not yet ready for final judgment.” In 1939, Franz Hermann Müller of Cologne Hospital published a study in which he demonstrated “that people with lung cancer were far more likely than non-cancer controls to have smoked.” This was confirmed in another, “more ambitious” study by “Eberhard Schairer and Eric Schöniger at the University of Jena” in 1943. These results became more conclusive as additional scholarly research was published through the 1950s and ’60s.
By the time Wynder’s study was published, the medical field—and the tobacco industry—had access to research concluding that the use of tobacco products posed a significant health risk. Hill believed the way to fight back was for the tobacco companies to join together, sponsor additional studies, and issue new “pro-cigarette” messaging using the word “research” to highlight the scientific nature of their counterarguments. The tobacco companies were not equipped internally to take on this role. For years they had worked to steal one another’s clients. Now they would need to defend the industry as a whole.
Following the meeting, Hill & Knowlton drafted a white paper that laid out a plan for the industry. “The grave nature of a number of recently highly publicized research reports on the effects of cigarette smoking . . . [has] confronted the industry with a serious problem of public relations,” wrote the firm. “The situation is one of extreme delicacy. There is much at stake and the industry group, in moving into the field of public relations, needs to exercise great care not to add fuel to the flames.”
Using the resources of the companies represented at the meeting, Hill & Knowlton recommended establishing the austere-sounding Tobacco Industry Research Committee. “The underlying purpose of any activity at this stage should be reassurance of the public through wider communication of facts to the public,” wrote Hill & Knowlton in the white paper. “It is important that the public recognize the existence of weighty scientific views which hold there is no proof that cigarette smoking is a cause of lung cancer.”
This purported research committee, whose public role was providing independent data on the risks of smoking, was in fact a front for Hill & Knowlton. The tobacco companies supplied an initial budget of $1.2 million and its offices were located one floor below Hill & Knowlton’s in the Empire State Building.
The group announced its existence with “A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers.” Run as a paid advertisement on January 4, 1954, in more than four hundred newspapers around the country, the statement claimed:
1. That medical research of recent years indicates many possible causes of lung cancer.
2. That there is no agreement among the authorities regarding what the cause is.
3. That there is no proof that cigarette smoking is one of the causes.
4. That statistics purporting to link cigarette smoking with the disease could apply with equal force to any one of many other aspects of modern life. Indeed the validity of the statistics themselves is questioned by numerous scientists.
The ad went on to describe the activities of the group:
1. We are pledging aid and assistance to the research effort into all phases of tobacco use and health. This joint financial aid will of course be in addition to what is already being contributed by individual companies.
2. For this purpose we are establishing a joint industry group consisting initially of the undersigned. This group will be known as TOBACCO INDUSTRY RESEARCH COMMITTEE.
3. In charge of the research activities of the Committee will be a scientist of unimpeachable integrity and national repute. In addition there will be an Advisory Board of scientists disinterested in the cigarette industry. A group of distinguished men from medicine, science and education will be invited to serve on this Board. These scientists will advise the Committee on its research activities.
According to Hill & Knowlton’s “progress report,” this ad reached more than 43 million Americans, costing a total of just over a quarter-million dollars. This advertising onslaught accomplished its intended purpose of overshadowing research informing the public of the dangers of tobacco.
The Tobacco Industry Research Committee was created to cast doubt on scientific consensus that smoking cigarettes causes cancer, to convince the media that there were two sides to the story about the risks of tobacco and that each side should be considered with equal weight. Finally it sought to steer politicians away from damaging the economic interests of the tobacco companies. Hill & Knowlton helped the industry carry out this mission.
Due to the success of Hill’s strategy, the methods he pioneered would be employed by a variety of players in Lies, Incorporated, over the decades to come, impacting the public debate on issues including climate change, health care, and gun control. If your goal is simply to keep the status quo in place, in this case keeping millions of people addicted to a dangerous product with no government intervention, then confusion is a useful tool. If the science is in doubt, why take action that would harm the economic well-being of farmers and thousands of others who work in the tobacco industry, as well as telling millions of Americans they should not engage in a favorite leisure activity? What made this strategy morally reprehensible was that the companies knew from the moment they launched their effort that cigarettes were killing millions of people. Their success at delaying action by the federal government and other health care authorities, caused by an unnecessary battle over science, undoubtedly cost millions more Americans their lives, in addition to hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, in health care costs.
The “Frank Statement” was the first step in a major public relations campaign whose goal was to undermine scientific research. It represented a major break from previous PR strategies. The tobacco industry’s prior instinct had been to mitigate the health risks suggested by the research, rather than to attack science head-on. Thus, each company had been competing against the others with claims that its cigarettes were the healthiest on the market. John Hill convinced them this was a counterproductive strategy.
In May 1954, Hill & Knowlton presented the Tobacco Industry Research Committee with a booklet titled “A Scientific Perspective on the Cigarette Controversy.” More than two hundred thousand copies were printed and sent to 176,000 doctors as well as to thousands of reporters around the country.
Seeking more heft, Hill & Knowlton hired a scientific adviser to serve as a public face for its efforts. Dr. Clarence Cook Little, who previously served as a director of the American Cancer Society, took on the role with vigor.
Little had impeccable credentials. He was a research biologist and a former assistant dean of Harvard and president of the University of Maine and the University of Michigan. At the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, Little supervised the distribution of millions of dollars in grant money, maintaining for decades that “there [was] no demonstrated causal relationship between smoking or any disease,” even after the science on the subject was indisputable. He insisted lung cancer was a genetic condition, not one caused by smoking.
Early on, Little’s role created controversy in the medical community. In The Atlantic, Dr. David D. Rutstein, head of the Preventive Medicine Department at the Harvard Medical School, wrote “An Open Letter to Dr. Clarence Cook Little” in October 1957. Citing eighteen studies in five countries, Rutstein accused Little of having “consistently ignored or brushed off all of the human evidence whenever a statement relating cigarette smoking and lung cancer has been released to the press by a research worker, by the British government through its Medical Research Council, or by the Surgeon General of the United States Public Health Service speaking for the United States government.”
He asked, “Is there really any justification for your continuing to demand the discovery of the ‘cause’ of lung cancer before we attempt to save human lives by recommending a decrease in cigarette smoking?”
If by 1957 the medical community had already reached consensus on the fact that smoking cigarettes caused lung cancer, why would a scientist like Dr. Little resist? Little was a believer in eugenics, which, post–World War II, had fallen out of favor. For Little, this belief was grounded in the notion that genetics predetermined the maladies our bodies were susceptible to, including cancer. The idea that cigarette smoke and not our DNA was the cause of cancer would undermine his belief structure. He would not be the first to turn a blind eye to facts in order to preserve his belief system. The scientists who work at the behest of corporate interests as part of Lies, Incorporated are often driven by ideology, sometimes tangentially linked to the subject at hand, not simply by money.
Employing scientists like Dr. Little as part of their effort would become a critical strategy for Lies, Incorporated. As Harvard science historian and coauthor of the book Merchants of Doubt Naomi Oreskes explained to me, “The credibility of the disinformation campaign depends upon having at least some real scientist who can stand up in public and make it seem as if there is a real scientific debate.”
In addition to publishing its own tobacco “research,” Hill & Knowlton ran an active campaign to alter news stories that were critical of the tobacco industry. The firm bragged about a story in “Cosmopolitan magazine that ‘was already in type’ ” when their efforts “resulted in ‘seven revisions and five qualifying additions.’ ”
Copyright © 2016 by Ari Rabin-Havt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.