Can we trust the tobacco industry?

Image credit: Stanford Medical School

Originally published on Dr Nick Hopkinson’s blog and reproduced here with permission, this post looks at the Tobacco Industry’s dark history of appropriation and subversion of science.


It ain’t no new thing” sang Gil Scott Heron in 1972, condemning the appropriation of black culture by white recording artists. A recent research paper published in Tobacco Control throws light on Tobacco Industry appropriation and subversion of science. Their goal, to prevent or delay measures which reduce their ability to market products that are among the leading causes of death worldwide (1).

Gil-Scott Heron

The Smoking Research Foundation (SRF), established by Japan Tobacco in 1986, with support from other major players in the tobacco industry, provided a scientific and political mechanism for strategies to delay tobacco control measures. The evidence that passive smoke exposure is a health hazard, particularly to children is clear (2) and findings, such as that non-smoking wives of smokers had an increased lung cancer risk (3), were seen by the industry as a major threat.  SRF committees brought together former senior civil servants from health and finance ministries (the Japanese idiom for this practice is “descent from heaven”) as well as academics and tobacco company officials. The SRF cast doubt on the scientific consensus and promoted passive smoking as an issue of “civility” rather than hazard, diverting attention away from smoking to concepts like “sick building syndrome”. As Philip Morris Japan put it, SRF members influenced policy, to “forestall restrictions on indoor smoking”. This groundwork has been effective, and the apparent lack of consensus on health harms has influenced court decisions. In 2010 a Japanese court ruled that Japan Tobacco could not have realised “the magnitude of the risks posed by tobacco in developing diseases such as lung cancer”. It also contributed to attempts to weaken smoke-free legislation around the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

This work, based on information held in the Truth Tobacco Industry Documents archive, which houses tobacco industry internal corporate documents produced during litigation between the tobacco industry and US states, is timely. The recently formed Philip Morris Foundation for a Smoke Free World is cut from similar cloth. This promises to provide $80 million research funding (roughly 0.1% of its revenue) per year for 10 years. The prize for the industry is distraction, a place at the table, reputational enhancement and the delivery of its own take on the harm reduction process. Supposedly independent, the foundation is in fact mandated to investigate harm reduction and smoking alternatives rather than a comprehensive approach to reducing smoking uptake and promoting cessation. As far back as 1954, the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, supposedly founded to foster independent research into lung cancer, was in fact intended to spread doubt and reassure the public that the health harms of smoking were exaggerated or not real. The Philip Morris Foundation has been criticised by groups including the WHO and contravenes guidelines on working with the tobacco industry, developed in response to the industry’s long history of distorting science.

The most charitable explanation for PMI’s proposal to “end smoking” is that they intend, at their own pace, to switch consumers from one of their products to another, at different rates in rich and poor countries, with no loss of shareholder value. Key to their strategy is the representation of a new, engaged and “good” tobacco industry absolved from the deeds of the past. But there is no “good” industry and the “past” deeds are very much in the present. The Philip Morris that purports to want to end smoking is the same one that takes countries to court to fight regulations on smoking, that aggressively markets its products to young people in the developing world, the same one using sponsorship of the Ferrari Formula One team to promote its Marlboro brand. Transnational tobacco companies continue to engage in bullying and litigation, bribery and smuggling, deceit on an industrial scale, funding politicians and sock puppet think tanks.

As with science, so with culture more broadly. Tobacco industry misappropriation of American Indian culture is well documented – framing smoking as a free-spirited activity with an authentic spiritual or sacred connection to the world. This has led to the associated brands being perceived as healthier and more natural (4)LGBT culture has been used for targeted marketing and the tobacco industry funded African American political bodies as part of a drive to promote menthol flavours to a population of new consumers.

Philip Morris: “Marlboro would probably have a very difficult time getting anywhere in the young black market. The odds against it there are heavy. Young blacks have found their thing, and it’s menthol in general and Kool in particular.”

The misappropriation of culture, the corruption of science, goes back at least 6 decades and continues unabated. What Philip Morris is peddling, as Gil Scott Heron put it, “ain’t no new thing, it’s just the same old sh*t.”

Dr Nick Hopkinson (@COPDdoc) is a Reader in Respiratory Medicine at Imperial’s National Heart and Lung Institute as well as an Honorary Consultant Chest Physician at The Royal Brompton Hospital.

Read Nick’s other blog posts on COPD. 

References:
  1. Iida K, Proctor RN. ‘The industry must be inconspicuous’: Japan Tobacco’s corruption of science and health policy via the Smoking Research Foundation. Tobacco Control. 2018.
  2. Royal College of Physicians. Passive smoking and children. A report of the Tobacco Advisory Group of the Royal College of Physicians. 2010.
  3. Hirayama T. Non-smoking wives of heavy smokers have a higher risk of lung cancer: a study from Japan. British Medical Journal (Clinical research ed). 1981;282(6259):183-185.
  4.  D’Silva J, O’Gara E, Villaluz NT. Tobacco industry misappropriation of American Indian culture and traditional tobacco.Tobacco Control. 2018.

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