Big Tobacco and the war on science

How in the world does one connect Rachel Carson and DDT to the public health dangers of cigarettes? Ask Philip Morris

Published June 3, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

Two weeks ago, I linked to a story in the Prospect that detailed illuminating connections between Big Tobacco and my favorite right-wing pundit-for-hire Steve, "Junk Science" Milloy. The back story, as argued by John Quiggin and Tim Lambert, was that the same Big Tobacco-funded activists who tried to undermine a public health rationale for restricting cigarette smoking were also responsible for propagating the notion that "Silent Spring" author Rachel Carson was responsible for millions of deaths in malaria-plagued nations because of her role in demonizing the insecticide DDT.

Ramesh Ponnuru, blogging in National Review Online, brought to my attention today the news that another longtime crusader against overzealous health regulators, Roger Bate, has responded to the Prospect story, and, according to Ponnuru, "sets the record straight" on how he has been "smeared" by Quiggin and Lambert. Corrections to the original story, says Ponnuru, are called for.

Ponnuru concludes with a P.S.:

I hope the outlets that trustingly linked to the original Prospect piece -- including Salon and The New Republic -- will take note of Bate's response.

Duly noted.

So far as I know, Steve Milloy has not attempted to deny his longtime funding support from the tobacco industry, but since that's exactly the claim that Roger Bate is making, let's take a closer look.

The paragraph from the original Quiggin and Lambert story at issue is this one:

Tobacco companies created a European version of TASSC, the European Science and Environment Forum (ESEF), led by Roger Bate, another tobacco lobbyist. In the late 1990s, Bate established "Africa Fighting Malaria," a so-called "astroturf" organization based in Washington DC. His aim was to drive a wedge between public health and the environment by suggesting that by banning DDT to protect birds, environmentalists were causing many people to die from malaria. Between them, Milloy's TASSC and Bate's Africa Fighting Malaria convinced many that DDT was a panacea for malaria, denied to the third world by the machinations of rich environmentalists.

But Bate says he is no tobacco lobbyist.

First, the tobacco industry never established the European Science and Environment Forum (ESEF). That allegation was addressed in the Lancet in 2000. ESEF was formed in late 1994 to debate climate change. The vast majority of its funding came from two foundations: the Marit and Hans Rausing Foundation, and the May and Stanley Smith Charitable Trust. The latter became interested in the DDT debate and provided funding through ESEF for the US chapter of Africa Fighting Malaria in 2003.

Second, I was never a tobacco lobbyist. After I wrote two articles on tobacco-related topics in 1996 and 1997, I consulted for Philip Morris, at their request, on international health for a total of about a month in 1998. I never lobbied for the company or promoted cigarettes in any way. I subsequently wrote to Philip Morris asking them to provide funding for a campaign to rehabilitate the use of DDT. This letter, which is now on the web, is the source of nearly all Quiggin and Lambert's suppositions. Yet I never even had the courtesy of a reply. Philip Morris never funded the campaign, and I haven't spoken with the company in at least seven years.

The Prospect, as of Monday, had published no responses from Quiggin or Lambert to Bate. But both Quiggin and Lambert have their own blogs, and they've been busy. Quiggin has mostly confined himself to addressing Bate's contentions about the pros and cons of DDT. Lambert takes on the connection to Big Tobacco.

Tellingly, Lambert does not address Bate's assertion that "the tobacco industry never established the European Science and Environment Forum." So if a correction is going to be forthcoming, that appears to be the weakest link. But as for Bate being, in general, in bed with Big Tobacco's attempts to undermine the public health rationale for limiting exposure to smoking? Drawing upon the voluminous records compiled at the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, Lambert cites numerous instances in which the tobacco industry's own records reference Bate.

The man has made a career of attacking science that supports the regulation of harmful substances.

To get a taste of what Roger Bate is all about, you can read this memo, from the files of British-American Tobacco, one of the world's largest tobacco companies, in which Bates appears to be updating British-American Tobacco on the European Science and Environment Forum's many activities. One of his goals: "Work with media to establish the name of ESEF as a scare watchdog."

In a totally rational universe, "a scare watchdog" might seem like a reasonable thing to have around. I have no doubt that public health advocates probably err on the side of caution every now and then, and it might be good to have a voice of reason weigh in to give perspective. But a scare watchdog that is keeping the tobacco industry regularly updated on its activities? Consider this e-mail, sent by a functionary in Philip Morris' UK office, to Matt Winokur, then the chief of "Worldwide Regulatory Affairs" for Philip Morris.

Winokur, Matt
From: Roberts, John
Sent: Wednesday, October 21, 1998 10:55 AM
To: Bushong, David; Winokur, Matt
Subject RE: Bate
I think Bate is a very valuable resource and have strongly recommended that he play some role at UN level. I recall that we paid him up to GBP 10,000 per month. There is one additional person I would recommend as deserving of consideration too and that is John Bowls. Where Bate's principal interest is malaria, Bowls's is mental health, I believe them to be complementary resources. Best wishes, John

You can make up your own mind as to why Philip Morris might consider a man whose principal interest was malaria to be a valuable resource for a tobacco company. As for me, I want to give a big shout-out to National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru -- because without his prodding, I wouldn't have known about the amazing resource of the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, which contains "more than 8 million documents (43+ million pages) created by major tobacco companies related to their advertising, manufacturing, marketing, sales, and scientific research activities" and which demonstrates, beyond any reasonable doubt, the role Big Tobacco has played in funding the right-wing attack on science.

Which is, of course, the point.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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