How Big Tobacco used bad science to avoid accountability — and set the blueprint for Big Oil

The Tobacco Industry ran so that Big Oil, anti-vaxxers and e-cigarette makers could fly

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published December 4, 2021 7:00PM (EST)

Cigarettes are seen for sale in a deli February 20, 2007 in New York City. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Cigarettes are seen for sale in a deli February 20, 2007 in New York City. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

In October, chief executives from four of the world's most powerful Big Oil companies testified before Congress about climate change — a scene that was eerily reminiscent of something that happened in the spring of 1994. Then, seven industry giants appeared before the House of Representatives — but from Big Tobacco, not Big Oil. As the business titans withered under persistent questioning from Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, Americans collectively witnessed the story as to how tobacco companies knowingly hooked their customers on an addictive and deadly product. To cap things off, many of those who appeared lied under oath about their actions, making it possible for prosecutors to later charge them with perjury. (This is no doubt why the energy industry figures prepared very carefully prior to the 2021 hearing.)

It isn't a coincidence that when Big Oil tries to wash its hands of climate change, their remonstrations comes across as strikingly similar to the time when Big Tobacco lied about the dangers of nicotine. In both hearings, viewers got to see capitalism's dark underbelly, exposed in all of its ugliness before the world: Businesses depend on profit, and therefore will lie about indisputable facts so they can continue to earn as much money as possible. To trick the public into helping them — even when, in the process, those same members of the public are only hurting themselves — this means they will lie about science.

To do so, they engage in a practice known as "manufacturing doubt." Whether it is chemical companies misleading about pollution, the sugar industry misleading about heart disease, energy companies and their climate change stories or anyone else, all of them draw from a similar cache of tactics intended to sow confusion among good faith actors, provide corrupt politicians with easy talking points and reassure those whose motivated reasoning inclines them against inconvenient scientific truths. As the authors of a 2021 study in the journal Environmental Health put it, Big Tobacco "is widely considered to have 'written the playbook' on manufactured doubt" and "has managed to maintain its clientele for many decades in part due to manufactured scientific controversy about the health effects of active and secondhand smoking."

The Big Tobacco story is at once straightforward and complex. During the heyday of Big Tobacco advertising in the 1950s and 1960s, cigarettes were associated with family friendly-fare; game shows, sitcoms and billboard advertisements associated cute animals with nicotine products.

In the mid-1960s, scientists who understood that cigarette use was linked to lung cancer and heart disease convinced Surgeon General Luther Terry to call out the products as dangerous; one year later, the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965 mandated that warning labels be attached to cigarette boxes. As public health advocates won victory after victory in raising awareness about tobacco products, the industry grew concerned.

By the 1970s, tobacco industry executives formulated a scheme, known as "Operation Berkshire," to undermine or thwart efforts at regulation by sowing doubt in the legitimacy of medical research about tobacco products. In addition to making it more difficult for ordinary people to accurately assess the issue, this strategy also appealed to those who had an economic interest in the tobacco industry and those whose personal preferences made them pro-tobacco, anti-regulation or both as a matter of principle. Most prominent for these efforts was a front group known as the International Committee on Smoking Issues (subsequently the International Tobacco Information Centre).

By appealing to these sentiments and interests — and keeping sympathetic politicians and officials in their pocket — Big Tobacco spent decades creating a false "controversy" around an issue that had, to the scientific community, already been objectively resolved. As Australian researchers for the journal BMJ wrote in 2000, "without question, the creation and promotion of this controversy, and the adoption of strategies implementing the conspiracy resulting from Operation Berkshire, have greatly retarded tobacco control measures throughout the world."

Fortunately, a turning point occurred in the 1990s only because a congressional committee decided to hold Big Tobacco accountable in ways that others had not.

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The moment of truth took place on April 14, 1994. Waxman had shrewdly lured the seven executives to the hearing by "inviting" them and thereby making it clear that the event would occur with or without them. This provided him with an optical win-win: Either they would show up and have to answer unpleasant questions, or they would duck out and look like they had something to hide. After they showed up, Waxman and other members of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health and the Environment grilled them mercilessly. No controversy was left untouched — the marketing campaigns to children, the medical details about their products' addictive nature, how cigarettes affected one's health and lifespan, whether the companies were manipulating nicotine. Instead of engaging in protracted legal battles to obtain key corporate documents, the legislators simply asked question in such a way that executives felt compelled to voluntarily agree to share them.

And, of course, there was the iconic decision by those same executives to lie under oath about whether they thought nicotine was addictive. Perjury probes soon followed; the embattled executives all left the industry within a couple years.

Perhaps even more upsetting to the industry was the ensuing litigation, which culminated in a $206 billion judgment against them — a staggering sum equivalent to 2.8% of the U.S. gross domestic product in 1994. And despite the tobacco industry's hysterical claims about the horrors that would result from tobacco regulations, none of their predictions came to pass. One in particular, by former R. J. Reynolds executive James W. Johnston, deserves special examination, as he posited that the inquiries were merely an excuse to ban tobacco products altogether.

"We hear about the addiction and the threat. If cigarettes are too dangerous to be sold, then ban them. Some smokers will obey the law, but many will not. People will be selling cigarettes out of the trunks of cars, cigarettes made by who knows who, made of who knows what."

This sense of persecution, utterly unfettered by any connection to provable reality, spoke to the deeper impulses on which Big Tobacco was preying. It started with a foregone conclusion that cigarette products could not be characterized as posing a serious public health risk; from there, facts needed to be rearranged to support the necessary assertion. This model was used not just for Big Tobacco's approach to political science, but its method for advancing pseudoscience as well.

In the aforementioned article from Environmental Health, researchers examined the strategies used not just by Big Tobacco but their successors and their various controversies: the coal industry and black lung disease, the sugar industry and both cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, the agrochemical business and chemical pollution, and the fossil fuel industry and climate change. They found that all of the industries would use tactics like gaining support from reputable individuals, misrepresenting data, attacking study designs, using hyperbolic and absolutist language and (of course) trying to influence lawmaking. Other popular tactics included manufacturing misleading literature, suppressing incriminating information, hosting bad faith conferences and seminars, pretending to be defenders of health, abusing credentials and taking advantage of scientific illiteracy.

The Big Tobacco tactics have only grown easier to implement in recent years, rather than more difficult. As the researchers pointed out, "the digital age has provided additional opportunities to spread misinformation. Doubt manufacturers have taken advantage of new media platforms, such as blogs and social media, to unite journalists, industry representatives and 'citizen scientists' with the aim of recruiting these individuals to perpetuate manipulated information."

Even the cigarette industry is copying from itself. E-cigarette companies have incurred controversy for using advertising strategies eerily similar to those that were banned when employed by Big Tobacco. North Carolina's attorney general announced last month that he is investigating Puff Bars and others in the distribution chain to make sure they are not targeting children. When defending themselves against that accusation, the pro-vaping community will often tangentially make similar claims that vaping is somehow healthy (or at least healthier than smoking), and sows doubt on existing science in ways that are eerily reminiscent.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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