Philip Morris uses chemical industry consultants to perpetuate ‘light cigarette’ myth

By David Heath

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the tobacco giant maintains that “low-tar” cigarettes are safer than regular ones. In a landmark ruling nearly a decade ago, a federal judge ordered tobacco companies to stop lying.

After listening to 84 witnesses and perusing tens of thousands of exhibits, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler of the District of Columbia took a year to write a 1,652-page opinion detailing the companies’ elaborate strategy to deny the harmful effects of smoking.

“In short, [the companies] have marketed and sold their lethal product with zeal, with deception, with a single-minded focus on their financial success, and without regard for the human tragedy or social costs that success exacted,” Kessler wrote in United States of America v. Philip Morris USA.

Kessler noted that the Justice Department, in a racketeering lawsuit, had presented “overwhelming evidence” of a conspiracy to defraud the public. She ordered the companies to take a number of actions, including ceasing to claim there was such a thing as a low-tar cigarette that reduced the risk of disease. The evidence showed this simply was not true.

Yet in about a dozen pending lawsuits, Philip Morris continues to do just that. It routinely argues that the nation’s top-selling cigarette, once known as Marlboro Lights and now called Marlboro Gold, reduces the risk of cancer.

To find scientists willing to make this claim, Philip Morris turned to consultants for the chemical industry. The experts Philip Morris hired work for firms whose scientists regularly contend in medical journals, courtrooms, and regulatory arenas that their clients’ chemical products pose little or no health risks to the public. The firms have been instrumental in delaying new regulations by criticizing the work of other scientists, and emphasizing the doubt inherent in health science. The resultant uncertainty has helped delay attempts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to crack down on ubiquitous chemicals with known dangers, such as formaldehyde, arsenic, and hexavalent chromium.

The irony in this arrangement is that the tobacco industry pioneered such tactics. “The tobacco industry wrote the playbook for the rest of the industries,” said Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “Whether it’s the chemical industry, whether its climate change … you see it in industry after industry.” Now, it’s hiring consultants who took its techniques and pushed them further in other industries, relying on their experience to contest the scientific consensus on the dangers of low-tar cigarettes.

The industry’s tactics continue to have catastrophic consequences. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attribute 480,000 deaths each year to smoking, equal to one in every five deaths. Since 1964, when the U.S. Surgeon General warned that smoking caused cancer, the government estimates that tobacco has killed more than 20 million Americans. That is 15 times the number of Americans who have perished in all wars combined.

Although millions have quit, smoking continues to be the most preventable cause of death in the United States today.

Redesigned cigarettes

At the turn of the 20th century, cigarette smoking was not yet in vogue. Lung cancer was so rare that some doctors had never seen a case. But scenes of everyone lighting up in Mad Men are no exaggeration. By 1955, two-thirds of men and almost one-third of women in the United States smoked cigarettes. Eventually, lung cancer became the leading killer among cancers in the United States.

Medical researchers noticed the parallel rise. In December 1952, a brief article in Readers Digest sent shock waves by summing up research linking smoking to an epidemic of lung cancer. A year later Time  reported that mice painted with tobacco tar developed tumors. A medical researcher told the magazine that it was now “beyond any doubt” that cigarettes cause cancer.

Panic ensued at the tobacco companies. On December 14, 1953, the CEOs of the six largest cigarette makers met secretly at New York’s Plaza Hotel to discuss a strategy for countering the bad publicity. What developed over time, as Kessler’s opinion details, was a joint strategy to twist science and mislead the public about the dangers of smoking.

The industry announced that it was forming a research committee to look into the matter. It hired independent scientists such as cancer researcher Clarence Cook Little to do interviews, insisting that there was no proof that cigarettes cause cancer.

See the full story at Center for Public Integrity


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