A history of denialism – Part II – Tobacco companies

To continue to explain how terribly misguided Mooney and Nisbet are about ignoring denialist campaigns I think it’s time to go over the history of one of the most effective denialist campaigns ever. That is the concerted effort by the major tobacco companies (RJ Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, Lorillard, Phillip Morris, and British American Tobacco) to spread misinformation about the health risks associated with smoking.

Fortunately for those who study denialism, one of the results of the Tobacco Master Settlement all the internal memos of four of the largest tobacco companies have been released to the public and exist as free searchable databases.

Within these documents one can find some true gems of denialist strategy second only to Wedge Document for their unintentional disclosure of their dishonest tactics. For instance from “NEW DIRECTIONS” A presentation of the tobacco institute staff June 25th, 1981:


And this gem from Brown and Williamson “Smoking and Health Proposal” from 1969:


Throughout these documents you see a similar theme every time. Science comes out that is harmful to their profits, such as the 1964 Surgeon General’s report on tobacco and health was to be opposed no matter what the results. The writing is schizophrenic, while they seem to be convinced of their righteousness and the safety of smoking, they write about actively pursuing and eliminating the carcinogens in tobacco smoke, making filters that will be safer, and consider strategies of admitting to the danger of cigarette smoke. As the science becomes more damning they just shift the message to one of righteousness of personal liberty while their own research confirmed the risks to nonsmokers from environmental tobacco smoke.

What does this have to do with Mooney and Nisbet telling us to ignore the cranks like the DI or the Heartland Institute? It shows that even when the majority of people understand and believe the science – for instance the evidence showing cigarettes cause cancer has been believed by around 90% of Americans for decades – well-funded denialist campaigns can still be highly effective in disrupting appropriate regulation, legislation, and dissemination of accurate public health information.

Global warming denialists using some of the same think tanks the tobacco companies used, and even some of the same shills such as Steven Milloy and Fred Singer (now working for the Heartland Institute) are capable of waging the same kind of war on legitimate science as they did for the tobacco companies. Only after years of work from public health authorities, scientists and interest groups, as well as vicious fighting over legislation, civil litigation and the actions of whistleblowers were the tobacco companies largely declawed in their campaign against scientific truth. It certainly wasn’t by ignoring them, and letting them act unopposed, or letting the polls dictate a non-existent victory that they were finally defeated. And that is the danger of the message we’re currently getting from the framers. It’s the worst possible strategy for opposing denialism, it’s dangerous, historically-ignorant, and will lead to disaster.

Despite the fact that the majority of Americans believed in the link between cigarettes and cancer the the tobacco companies’ denialist campaign worked for a long time, and here’s how they did it…

In the past decade, multiple researchers working in public health have published in journals like JAMA and Lancet describing how the tobacco companies were successful in challenging responsible regulation and disclosure of health risks in the US and worldwide through a careful campaign of disinformation.

One of the most basic methods of opposing proper health regulation is to have shills in the media that will promote a pro-industry message. The tobacco companies performed this by using a paid network of journalists and right wing think tanks that would release tobacco-friendly misinformation and oppose anti-tobacco legislation all while hiding the monetary connections between the industry and their shills to give the appearance of independence. These connections were then discovered with careful study of tobacco company documents:

Documents show that Philip Morris’ aims to influence journalistic coverage of “EPA bashing” and “corruption” were carried out discreetly, in part, by a Washington, DC, media and political consultant Richard T. Hines. Hines served as a state legislator in the South Carolina House of Representatives and held several executive positions in the Reagan administration. Hines also assisted the second Bush administration’s presidential campaign [41]. In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported that Hines may have helped candidate George W. Bush win the South Carolina primary by funding the “Keep It Flying” Political Action Committee, a pro-Confederate flag group that sent out 250,000 letters criticizing Senator John McCain before the primary election [42].

In March 1993, Thomas Collamore, Philip Morris’ vice president of corporate affairs policy and administration, reported to Steve Parrish, vice president and general counsel of Philip Morris, that “Richard [Hines] is responsible for a number of articles that have appeared in … major news publications regarding EPA and ETS” [43]. Hines worked with Philip Morris to develop “a network of receptive journalists, television commentators, and editorialists” thereby getting Philip Morris’ messages out to a “selected network of journalists” [44]. Hines asserted that by using this approach, “[W]e have been able to get favorable articles/commentaries in major publications … and reach millions of the public through numerous syndicated columnists that are in our network” [44]. Another Philip Morris internal memo stated that Hines “works with Tom Borelli [director of science and environmental policy at Philip Morris] to generate articles critical of EPA science including ETS” [45]. Hines invoiced Philip Morris at least US$200,000 in 1992 [46], the year the last draft and final risk assessment was released, and was budgeted for US$140,000 in 1993 [47].

The list of names and organizations that Hines recruited will appear familiar to anyone studying denialism. You see the Reason Foundation, Cato, CEI, Heritage and famous denialists like Michael Fumento being sponsored by the right-wing National Journalism Center and money from Phillip Morris to generate an anti-ETS message. This is despite the fact that the tobacco company’s own research demonstrated ETS health risk and their internal efforts to decrease the hazard and irritation from “sidestream smoke”. They even proposed a strategy in the top secret “Operation Rainmaker” memo to buy a major media outlet to further challenge the science.

But it didn’t end with journalists, the cigarette companies also funded a small cohort of shill scientists, again hiding their connections to their agents through dishonest tactics:

The Center for Indoor Air Research (CIAR), a nonprofit organization funded by the tobacco industry, played an essential role in developing “stronger arguments” to support the industry’s position that ETS represented an insignificant health risk.11 CIAR was founded in March 1988, allegedly for the purpose of “sponsoring high quality research on indoor air issues and to facilitate the communication of research findings to the broad scientific community.”17 Founding members of CIAR included Philip Morris, R. J. Reynolds, and Lorillard.17

ETS consultants embarked on various activities under the industry’s direction, including (1) attending and presenting papers at selected ETS symposia and conferences32-34; (2) writing op-ed pieces in top-tier newspapers and magazines such as The New York Times, The Washington Times, and Newsweek33,35,36; (3) submitting comments to the EPA and the CIAR Scientific Advisory Board on the draft 1990 EPA report33; and (4) engaging in media tours (labeled “Truth Squad” tours) designed, seemingly, to discredit the EPA and its ETS risk assessment.32,33,37-39

Industry scientific consultants were also used to infiltrate international public health conferences addressing ETS, including the 6th and 8th World Conferences on Tobacco or Health.40,41 Documents show that Japan Tobacco, Inc, sought to “change the very nature and tone” of the 1987 world conference by having approximately 40 scientists attend and present “neutral” papers:

Using their cherry picked research, creating fake scientific journals as described here in the Lancet, funding manufacturing associations and through the formation of astroturf interest groups they were able to stall enforcement of workplace safety regulations designed to reduce exposure to ETS. This was a strategy seen again and again, that while they acknowledged internally that the fight was ultimately futile – their own research showed the carcinogenicity of ETS – their denialist strategy was successful in largely discrediting the 1992 EPA report on ETS and delaying implementation of workplace and public restrictions on EPA.

This is a common thread among denialists. The tobacco companies in their early campaigns against regulation with the Surgeon General’s report in the 60s sought to oppose the link between tobacco and any health problem. As this position became unpopular and increasingly untenable they successively back off their most extreme claims while still trying to generate doubt about the science they were opposed too. As ETS became the issue they implemented their Sand in the Gears policy of creating delays in implementing public health policy. While they say they’re just interested in the truth and seem to even believe it at times, their actions demonstrate they are only interested in one thing – the destruction of any scientific claim they see as a threat to their ideology.

We see the same strategies being implemented now by the DI and the Heartland Institute, and even some of the same organizations and people being employed. How can the framers possibly tell us to ignore this simply because they’re currently behind in the polls? How did they fall behind in the polls? Was it from ignoring them or fighting them back every step of the way? Only one strategy has consistently worked against these denialist campaigns. We need a continued and concerted effort in discrediting their misinformation, exposing their methods and lies, and ultimately fighting them in the press, the courts and the legislatures as needed.

15 thoughts on “A history of denialism – Part II – Tobacco companies”

  1. A minor quibble. I suggest that, for the sake of your readers who don’t have access to the Lancet, you replace the link currently behind the phrase “fake scientific journals” to a link to an abstract that non-subscribers to the Lancet can see.

    BTW, I think that part of the answer to your question, “How can the framers possibly tell us to ignore this simply because they’re currently behind in the polls?”, is that the framers in question, Mooney and Nisbet (especially Mooney), got stuck in what Mooney himself called “counterintuitive mode.”

  2. Mark

    I know it’s sadly fashionable on ScienceBlogs these days to slag each other off, but I’m a bit lost as to what point you’re trying to make. Yes, all the above is very interesting, but wtf does it have to do with the Myers/Nisbet debate?

    I don’t agree with Nisbet/Mooney by any means, but as far as I’m aware they didn’t say we should ignore Denialists, just that dealing with them should be left to certain people (which I disagree with). Meanwhile, I don’t see how any of your post is relevant to P.Z. Myers, unless you’re going to claim that the tobacco lobby was dealt with by shouting a lot and throwing random insults around, rather than by a thorough process of investigation and public education through schools and journalism.

    Regardless of your opinion (I do think Nisbet was wrong), this constant flame war – because that’s all it basically is – going on across ScienceBlogs is at best boring, and as worse counter-productive. All of us hard-working science bloggers are being made to look like petty fools because some of our most high-profile colleagues are more intent on bashing each other over the head, than they are in engaging in constructive research into what our message should be and how to put it across.

    The article here is really good, and really interesting, but the random attacks scattered through it are unfounded and unnecessary, and you’ve not even discussed in any detail how this denialist conspiracy was eventually toppled. Now *that* would be helpful.

    End of rant. I am an avid reader of your blog, and I generally love your writing, but enough is enough with this endless Expelled! stuff!

  3. I agree, Martin, that this seems to have a somewhat tenuous relation to the current debate as it’s written. The Nisbet/Mooney stuff seems like a tack on to the rest of the article.

    However, suggesting that what Mark wrote is anything resembling “slag” or “bashing each other over the head” is pretty absurd, on your part.

  4. Maybe it’s because I’m behind on this debate but Chris Mooney calling us enablers for covering the HI seems relevant.

    And the general impression that we should evaluate the success of denialist movements based on polling information is terrible. I am giving an example of why public polling is irrelevant to the power of a denialist campaign, and a minority belief can still carry a great deal of power.

  5. @MarkH “I am giving an example of why public polling is irrelevant to the power of a denialist campaign, and a minority belief can still carry a great deal of power.”

    Okay, that makes a bit more sense. Still, I’ll be happy when I can browse SB and not see Yet Another Expelled Post…

    @GordonS “suggesting that what Mark wrote is anything resembling “slag” or “bashing each other over the head” is pretty absurd, on your part.”

    I didn’t. I was referring to the general tone of the “debate” over this on ScienceBlogs.

  6. Mark,
    As I never said, in a blanket way, that we should ignore denialist campaigns, I fail to see what you’re rebutting.

    There is a time to ignore and not to ignore, and wisdom is knowing the difference….

  7. wisdom is knowing the difference….

    And you suggested that we should ignore the think tanks that promote global warming and evolution denialism you may recall.

    I have explained clearly, twice now, why this is a mistake.

    They are too well funded. They have inroads to various publications – both within their movement and mainstream publications like op-ed pages of newspapers – and they regularly appear on the TV. They are operating based on a similar strategy to the tobacco companies that was highly successful despite the fact the majority of people disbelieved the tobacco company claims. The global warming denialists have hired the same think tanks, and even come of the same people to shill their nonsense. Would you ignore the tobacco companies when they did this? No. Why would you ignore the oil companies and fundamentalists then?

    Ignoring AEI, CEI, HI, DI, Focus on the Family etc., is nuts. They have money, access to media, access to politicians and a bigger loudspeaker than any scientific organization does. Which politician is at the beck and call of science advocates? We have allies, sure, but nothing like the control of reps and senators by oil interests, fundamentalist groups, and their ilk.

    Wisdom is knowing that you don’t turn your back on these people, the HI and DI included.

  8. @MarkH: Wisdom is knowing that you don’t turn your back on these people, the HI and DI included.

    Wisdom would be adopting DI’s tactics, not trying to shout them down.

    Are the Discovery folks doing so well because:
    a) They’re ranting like P.Z. Myers,
    b) They’re “framing” like Matt Nisbet, or
    c) They recognize that to create an impact you need to organize a campaign to target specific nodes in the great social network of life – i.e. politicians, editors, community churches, etc.

    In the meantime, yes, I agree with you that Nisbet/Mooney are wrong, but why can’t you see that prolonging this “battle” on ScienceBlogs just makes all of you look bad? All you’re doing is ranting at a brick wall.

  9. I think it serves 2 general goals Martin.

    I’m educating people about how denialists have been effective in the past.

    I’m demonstrating how they’ve been defeated in the past.

    The fact that the framers just happen to be screamingly wrong with regard to their approach to well-funded denialists is just icing on the cake. I was going to write these pieces anyway, and had been researching them for weeks before the whole thing blew up.

    Also, remember my work keeps me from following the minute-by-minute developments on this front. I’m going to get my word in, even if a bit late though.

  10. Yeah, I think this is useful, Mark.

    I hope see that Chris intends to stick to his guns a bit longer, too, as I can conceive of situations where you might want to ignore something like the HI crankfest as part of a larger strategy (for example, if you thought the HI had organised it as a distraction while they get their act together on putting sand in the gears of CO2 mitigation) but I dunno if that’s the direction he was going.

  11. In the meantime, yes, I agree with you that Nisbet/Mooney are wrong, but why can’t you see that prolonging this “battle” on ScienceBlogs just makes all of you look bad? All you’re doing is ranting at a brick wall.

    Granted, I have payed about as much attention to the whole recent framing flareup, as I do what I eat (i.e. paying attention in an abstract sense, but not really caring), but this is actually one of the best explanations of why Mooney and Nisbet are wrong that I’ve seen.

    And I’ll second the idea that everything described has it’s campaign. Campaigns that are so successful because instead of trying to actually convince people their position is the right one, all they are doing is trying to plant a little doubt. Global warming is a great example of this, as is tobacco even today.

    Another good one for the doubt front, is of course creationism. This one feeds on doubt that’s rooted in an impulse that affects the vast majority of Americans, religion. For many, even if they pretty much accept evolution, there is probably a tiny, lingering question. Hell, I rejected revealed religion years ago, yet I still get them once in a while, the feelings of “what if I’m wrong?” stemming from a childhood of fundamentalist Christianity.

    In all of these, we are dealing with disinformation campaigns that are extremely well funded. And the ambiguous nature of ID is absolutely bent on tickling doubt, rather than trying to convince anyone to actually believe in it. Contrary to popular belief, Expelled is not just trying to preach to the choir. They are also trying to foment controversy where none exists. They are targeting an audience that will be sympathetic to their plight, whether they buy what ID’s selling or not.

    I have little doubt that many of the cross-topic denialist cranks will be citing Expelled, right alongside such greats as Loose Change (I think that’s the popular troofer flick). The thing that I have noticed about denialists, is they are very earnest in their desire to disseminate the Truth about whatever popular understanding of whatever issue they care about at the moment.

    In the process of writing a story that I still hope to see published in one of our local alt weeklies, I interviewed a few of our local HIV/AIDS denialists. (we in Portland even have a group of them that meets regularly and discuss the horrors and atrocities of evidence based medicine) They seem just like most other folks, unless you hit one of their hot-buttons. Which of course I did, trying to gather information for an article on HIV/AIDS denialism.

    If I actually manage to get it published, or if they actually give me a definite refusal (it’s up in the air), I will be posting audio of the interviews. For most it was really not much different than I had expected, based on dealing with some online and having more than a couple conspiracy theorist types for friends. But two of them were frightening in their abilities for persuasion. The arguments were nothing I hadn’t come across before, but they made it all sound so very reasonable.

    And these are the denialists to watch out for. While it is doubtful that they will convince all that many people they are right, they can be immensely successful at convincing people that there is a controversy. These people exist in the pro-tobacco lobby, they exist in the creationist front, they exist in the global warming front. Hell, they even exist in every religion as well, people who can convince others that the sky is red, when they can damn well look up and see the blue.

    When those people aren’t responded to, it is a win for them. Because they aren’t out to actually convince people of their position, they have a distinct advantage over those of us who are interested in actually challenging the message. We have to prove that we’re right. They just have to “prove” that we might not be.

  12. DuWayne

    Thankyou for your reply, but you have completely and utterly missed my point in your haste to jump to the conclusion that I agree with Nisbet because I disagree with Myers.

    I said: “why can’t you see that prolonging this “battle” on ScienceBlogs”. I was referring to the ridiculous battle between the PZ brigade and the Nisbet brigade, not the wider battle against creationism. I am not saying we should not respond to these people. All I am saying, as I made very clear, is that all this mudslinging on ScienceBlogs is a joke.

  13. So what you are saying is that we should still respond to cranks, but that we should not discuss why we should respond to these cranks if we have mention disagreements among the different people on this site?

    It seems like you want to excise an important internal debate because it makes us look weak to people from the outside. But in Nisbet’s first response to PZ, you also say that it’s a joke that we think we have the traffic to even have a significant impact.

    Am I missing something here?

  14. Martin –

    Actually, only the first para was a response to you. I really do think that this is a very good explanation of why Nisbet is wrong. Rather than prolonging anything, he’s giving a nice summary.

    Everything else I wrote, was just a response to Mark’s piece, which I really appreciated.

  15. In the process of writing a story that I still hope to see published in one of our local alt weeklies, I interviewed a few of our local HIV/AIDS denialists. (we in Portland even have a group of them that meets regularly and discuss the horrors and atrocities of evidence based medicine) They seem just like most other folks, unless you hit one of their hot-buttons. Which of course I did, trying to gather information for an article on HIV/AIDS denialism.

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