Fake News

Conspiring to Fight Science

Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy. (Author Unknown Brown&Williamson Records 4)


On December 14, 1953 the eight heads of almost every major American cigarette manufacturer except Liggett met at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. They agreed they faced a crisis because of mounting scientific evidence which was now being spread in the popular press. With a view to working together to fight the evidence that damned their product, they would turn to public relations as they had done successfully in the past.  The next day they met with John Knowlton, founder of the firm Hill & Knowlton, who created a plan to cast doubt on any scientific findings linking cancer to cigarette smoking (Brandt The cigarette century: the rise, fall, and deadly persistence of the product that defined America 165). As in the past, the cigarette companies would not use just straightforward advertising, where their own self-interest would be obvious. Hill proposed creating an industry group that would appear to sponsor research into smoking, but would actually either promote scientists with a skeptical view of evidence linking cancer and smoking, or would sponsor research in the basic causes of cancer, thereby diverting work away from the study of cigarettes. They would cite ideas of fairness and "two sides to every story" implying that there was no consensus among researchers about the link between smoking and cancer. They would call for more research as a way to imply that the studies to date were insufficient or flawed in some way. They would use a veneer of scientific method to subvert the acceptance of science (--- The cigarette century: the rise, fall, and deadly persistence of the product that defined America 165-167).

The formation of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee was announced in A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers.



An edited draft of the document helps to show the conscience choices being made to frame the arguments against scientific evidence. While research implicating cigarettes would be acknowledged, the statement is careful to remove the adjective "unquestioned" from the "professional standing" of the researchers. 
Conversely, those researchers who question the basis for linking cigarette smoking and cancer are called "eminent."

As they will do throughout the campaign, they seek to link lung disease to other possible causes, and rather than specifying a "half dozen" they use a vaguer and potentially larger "many" such causes.

 They are careful not to claim "no proof" against their product

and also remove a claim to never market a harmful product.

Finally they delete an entire paragraph promising to release and share with the public all research findings. In fact, they would work to only share the data that would support their stance that cigarettes could not be proven injurious to human health. 

Read Entire Draft with Edits




Through the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, the industry spent millions sponsoring research to support their claim that no link between smoking and cancer could be proved. Scientists were recruited and received fees from the tobacco institute to do research that would help raise doubts, at least in the public, about cancer research. They found a few skeptical scientists, generally not from medical fields, who would dispute research linking cancer and cigarettes. They positioned this as controversy in the scientific community, when in fact medical researchers had reached consensus on the link between smoking and cancer. (Brandt Inventing conflicts of interest: a history of tobacco industry tactics 65). One such scientist was Theodore Sterling, a mathematician and early computer science professor.  In 1978 he published "Does Smoking Kill Workers or Working Kill Smokers? or the Mutual Relationship between Smoking, Occupation, and Respiratory Disease" raising a claim that emphasis on cigarettes as a cause of illness may hurt workers: 

Thus, the relationship between smoking, occupation, and disease needs serious clarification. Smoking appears to have been used to divert attention away from the effects of occupational and environmental exposures to toxic substances (Sterling 437).

In Google Scholar, this article is cited 51 times, by articles pointing to it as a genuine piece of research. Nothing in the published article identifies the financial relationship of the author to the tobacco institute: financial payments were later identified in industry records uncovered by the court case against big tobacco (Glantz 296).This type of payment and resulting publication was not as common as research that appeared in non-peer reviewed journals. A common ploy for disseminating such research was to fund symposia, to pay researchers to attend, and to then cover costs of publishing conference proceedings (Bero 203). The industry research arm also funded research at universities aimed mainly at finding alternative causes of cancer (Kluger 362). The result was that the industry could point to just a few studies that ran counter to the preponderance of evidence linking cancer and smoking, thereby implying a controversy that did not really exist. When the campaign to fight the accumulating science against cigarette smoking began, perhaps many of the tobacco executives truly believed that there was not a provable link between smoking and cancer. However, internal papers and reports from the tobacco industry have shown that by as early as 1960 their own scientists were telling them that there was overwhelming evidence that a link existed (Cummings 1074).

The tobacco industry was relatively successful in this campaign for many years. In 1999 the cigarette manufacturers were sued by the United States Department of Justice. In 2000 part of the government's claim was allowed to go forward under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. In 2006 Judge Gladys Kessler found the

Defendants have engaged in and executed - and continue to engage in and execute - a massive 50-year scheme to defraud the public, including consumers of cigarettes, in violation of RICO." 

A byproduct of the trial was the release of millions of internal documents detailing the tobacco industry's work to fight science, which can now be viewed at the University of California at San Francisco Truth Tobacco Industry Documents. Over the half century that the campaign was active they created a successful blueprint for how to fight real scientific research with pseudo-research, or research that simply obfuscates emerging evidence.. They successfully created doubt about research that was widely accepted as overwhelming among the scientific community. They did this by finding a handful of researchers who would publish research positing other possible causes for disease. The industry could then recast the discussion as a "controversy." They often went around the most rigorous publications, discussing findings at conferences and then publishing in symposia, or simply distributed their research directly to news organizations and legislators. They spent millions and the money helped to at least slow the inevitable finding that smoking and cancer were linked. These are strategies still in use today.

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