The tobacco industry has recently been accused of covering up the extent of its knowledge about the harmful effects of smoking, but tobacco has a long history in the United States. English settlers in Virginia began cultivating tobacco in 1612. It was first exported to England in 1619, and its use soon became widespread on both sides of the Atlantic.
The first clinical report linking tobacco use to cancer was made in 1761 by an English physician, Dr. John Hill, and an antitobacco movement was in full swing by the middle of the following century. During the Industrial Revolution, cigarette manufacturing was achieved on a mass scale, and by 1880 a billion cigarettes were being sold in the United States each year.
Following World War I, medical researchers began to accumulate growing evidence that smoking was leading to a variety of diseases, particularly lung cancer, which had once been considered quite rare but was increasingly being noted as a cause of death.
The first large-scale scientific study of smoking appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1950, and marked the beginning of a heated and protracted battle between the tobacco industry and opponents of smoking. It soon became apparent that cigarettes could not be sold to the public simply by asserting that they were mild and good tasting.
Since cigarettes have always been a legal product, it is difficult to construe their mere manufacture and sale to the public as a conspiracy. If the tobacco industry is guilty of any conspiracy, it must be found in the way in which the industry has portrayed its products to the public. In 1994, a tobacco industry insider leaked thousands of pages of documents that shed new light on the industry’s marketing activities (Glantz et al.).
The creation in 1954 of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, which at the time was announced as a means of funding scientific research on the medical effects of tobacco, was exposed by the documents as a public relations scheme designed to provide a counterbalance to the growing evidence of a link between tobacco use and cancer.
The committee (renamed the Council for Tobacco Research in 1964) made the argument that the supposed link was supported only by a statistical correlation that failed to prove causality, and claimed that only through additional research could the controversy be resolved. It continued to make this argument even as medical evidence piled up.
The Industry on the Defensive
When the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health concluded in its historic 1964 report that “smoking contributes substantially to mortality,” and that “appropriate remedial action” was called for, the tobacco industry faced a grave crisis that prompted a strong attack on the report and a vigorous defense of smoking, and the industry was clearly—and permanently—put on the defensive.
In 1966 a mild warning label was placed on cigarette packages, but in 1970 it was strengthened to a warning that “The Surgeon General has determined that cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health,” and all cigarette advertising was halted on radio and television (Whelan).
One key issue facing the industry was the question of whether nicotine, a key ingredient in cigarettes, is addictive. Publicly, the industry took the position that it is not, as that meant that smoking is strictly voluntary and smokers can stop smoking whenever they decide that their health might be at risk.
The industry’s own in-house research, however, had shown that increasing levels of nicotine are required to maintain its satisfying effect, and one of the documents leaked in 1994 contained a statement by an industry lawyer admitting that “nicotine is addictive” (Glantz et al.).
Another tactic adopted by the industry was to defend the “right to smoke,” which it touted as if it were a basic civil right under siege by the forces of tyranny. In some cases, articles defending smoking appeared in popular publications without the public knowing that their authors were tobacco industry hirelings. At the same time, industry lawyers played an important role in deciding what scientific research would be funded.
To lessen its apparent responsibility for any harm to the health of smokers, the tobacco industry claimed that its advertising was aimed at getting people to switch brands rather than take up smoking, but a variety of methods were used to promote smoking in subtle ways.
For example, payments were made in exchange for the showing of characters smoking in movies, and the industry cooperated with makers of candy cigarettes who were willing to make their packages resemble actual cigarette packages (and thus entice young smokers).
In the realm of conspiracy theory, it seems that conspiracies are often charged, and even proved in the “court of public opinion,” without any validation in the legal system. The tobacco industry proved to be an exception to this.
After years of successfully evading lawsuits, the industry was finally hit hard by court judgments that reflected a widespread acceptance of the notion that it had pursued a conspiracy of silence and deceit about the harms of smoking.
Although some far-fetched charges went unproved (for example, the theory that Bill Clinton, a president who had taken a hard line toward the tobacco industry, faced an impeachment effort that was engineered by the industry’s Republican allies), big tobacco’s decades-long campaign to deny culpability for harming the public’s health proved transparent, and in 1998 five tobacco companies agreed to pay state governments $256 billion over a period of twenty-five years to compensate for the cost of providing medical care to persons made ill by tobacco products.
Moreover, a string of civil suits resulting in billions of dollars in awards to plaintiffs made it clear that the tobacco industry had secured a place at the top of the list of corporate supervillains.