Tobacco industry disinformation: Past & present

As a scientist, I’m trained not to dismiss evidence just because it contradicts my own beliefs about matters of fact, so when I first became actively involved in the secondhand smoke issue 25 years ago, if I read tobacco industry claims contrary to other evidence, my first reaction was to give them the benefit of the doubt.

That quickly changed after I learned they were only interested in spreading disinformation to protect their profits. It’s still happening today, as I observed last Tuesday during the public portion of St. Louis County Council’s meeting, only now it’s not tobacco industry lobbyists, who lost credibility years ago, it’s surrogates like Mr. Bill Hannegan.

Is this a fair assessment? I think it is, because what I’m seeing repeatedly with Mr. Hannegan is a willingness to use disputed or debunked science as a way to derail smoke-free air efforts locally.

When the scientific community was focused on research into the adverse health effects of active smoking, the industry’s focus was on creating a false dichotomy in that area. Once the damning evidence on active smoking became overwhelming, the focus shifted to involuntary smoking, or what the industry preferred to call “environmental tobacco smoke,” to suggest it’s just a fact of life. The term now preferred by the scientific community is “secondhand smoke.”

I was thinking about this today after having spent several days researching a published paper quoted by Mr. Hannegan during his pitch to St. Louis County Council on Tuesday, July 21, 2009. He referenced the work of Dr. Roger Jenkins, Oak Ridge National Laboratory – known as the “16-cities study” – which purported to show that exposure to secondhand smoke in 16 cities, including St. Louis, was at WORST no more than the equivalent of “1 cigarette per week,” according to Mr. Hannegan.

The purpose in quoting such questionable studies is no different from Big Tobacco’s: creating doubt about the underlying science of secondhand smoke to weaken support for government regulation.

As I noted above, this is not new. I was reviewing a GASP newsletter from January 1985, not long after our formation, when we were called St. Louis GASP and before approval of not-for-profit status, obtained in 1986, and found an interesting tobacco industry ad. and a published scientific rebuttal.

The TV Guide of June 16-20, 1984, had an R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. ad. headed Second-hand smoke: Let’s clear the air. The copy continued:

There is little evidence – and certainly nothing which proves scientifically – that cigarette smoke causes disease among non-smokers.

You don’t have to take our word for it.

This was followed by quotes attributed to U.S. Surgeon General Julius B. Richmond, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, and Dr. Claude Lenfant, director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood institute, all appearing to support the assertions in the ad.

The doubt this created in my mind only changed after reading a paper about tobacco industry misinformation by Ernster & Burns called: A Rebuttal to the Tobacco Industry’s Paper, “Cigarette Smoke and the Nonsmoker” published in the Journal of Public Health Policy, September 1984, pp 368-375.

Subsequently the original ad, marked up with excerpts from the paper by Ernster & Burns directly rebutting its claims, plus their complete article, was included in the St. Louis GASP January 1985 newsletter and is just as relevant today.

One page of the GASP newsletter shows the industry ad., reproduced unamended except for some embellishment, and alongside it directly relevant rebuttals from the Ernster & Burn’s paper. I reproduce the page below, followed by the entire paper.

That same year, I was further informed about the tobacco industry and its deception in The Smoke Ring – Tobacco, Money & Multinational Politics by British investigative reporter, Peter Taylor, with an introduction by Dr. Koop. Since that time I’ve not trusted the tobacco industry as far as I could throw it. It looks like Mr. Hannegan is vying to replace them.

Note: In case the text of the ad. is unclear on-screen, I’ve extracted the underlined sections and followed each with Ernster & Burns’ rebuttals:

RJR ad: USSG Julius Richmond’s 1979 Report: “Healthy non-smokers exposed to cigarette smoke have little to no physiologic response to the smoke, and what response does occur may be due to psychological factors.”

Ernster & Burns’ rebuttal: “The latter statement referred only to the changes in heart rate and blood pressure found in children and was not suggested in relation to other health effects, nor was it one of the overall conclusions of the report. Moreover, it was written before some important studies linking involuntary exposure with disease were published.” page 373

RJR ad: “SG C. Everett Koop could not conclude that passive smoking is a cause of cancer in non-smokers.”

Ernster & Burns’ rebuttal: “They chose not to cite the Surgeon General’s full conclusion, i.e.: “Although the currently available evidence is not sufficient to conclude that passive or involuntary smoking causes lung cancer in nonsmokers, the evidence does raise concern about a possible serious public health problem” (5). They also ignored the foreward to the report by Assistant Secretary for Health, Edward Brandt, M.D., who stated:

While the nature of this association is unresolved, it does raise the concern that involuntary smoking may pose a carcinogenic risk to the nonsmoker. Any health risk resulting from involuntary smoke exposure is a serious public health concern because of the large numbers of nonsmokers in the population who are potentially exposed. Therefore, for the purposes of preventive medicine, prudence dictates that nonsmokers avoid exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke to the extent possible. p 371

RJR ad: Dr. Lenfant stated in 1980 … “the evidence that passive smoking in a general environment has health effects remains sparse, incomplete and sometimes unconvincing.”

Ernster & Burns’ rebuttal: However, reading the entire editorial from which this quote was taken gives the reader a different impression. Dr. Lenfant went on to say:

The article by White and Froeb…brings a new dimension that will clearly have considerable impact; they faultlessly demonstrate a reduction in measures of small airways of healthy nonsmokers exposed to cigarette smoke in the workplace … now, for the first time, we have a quantitative measurement of physical change — a fact that may tip the scales in favor of the nonsmokers (4). page 369

RJR ad 1984: Secondhand smoke - Lets clear the air

RJR ad 1984: Secondhand smoke - Lets clear the air

Ernst & Burns "A Rebuttal....." p368 Ernst & Burns: "A Rebuttal...." p369 Ernst & Burns: "A Rebuttal...." p370 Ernst & Burns: "A Rebuttal...." p371 Ernst & Burns: "A Rebuttal...." p372 Ernst & Burns: "A Rebuttal...." p373 Ernst & Burns: "A Rebuttal...." p374 Ernst & Burns: "A Rebuttal...." p374

2 responses to “Tobacco industry disinformation: Past & present

  1. I generally enjoy your thoughts Martin. I must say though that you lost me when you began the scientific explanation of simple news clippings. Maybe your site is not for me, the average joe. I’m not a scientist and would appreciate laymens terms especially if science is not necessary in the discussion. I thought your first 6 paragraphs are great but i got nothing from the rest of it. Sorry to be so crude.

    • Thanks for your feedback. This was a long article primarily for those wanting an in-depth discussion. I’m a scientist, which is why I like detailed explanations as long as they’re written in plain English, which I felt this was. However, my purpose was to convey that, over the twenty-five years I’ve been involved in this issue, I’ve learned that any tobacco industry-sponsored research is not to be trusted, and it’s aim is primarily to create a controversy where none really exists. That’s the take-home message here.

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