Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Merchants of Death

It occurs to me that a cheap trick to get blog material is to tell you what I lectured about yesterday. Most weeks I lecture Monday Wednesday and Friday, although I have guest lecturers when I can because I'm lazy and the students would get sick of me anyway. But Friday I talked about the tobacco industry.

In 1953, British scientists Doll and Hill published the results of a cohort study that showed that smoking tobacco causes lung cancer. Evidence quickly piled up that it also caused heart disease. Tobacco company scientists got right away that this was all true, and told the executives. (I'll tell you how we know this in a minute.) But the companies denied it, and called it junk science. The first Surgeon General's report on smoking and health came out in 1964, and concluded that tobacco causes cancer and heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but the companies continued to deny it, even as their own scientists were writing internal memos urging them to own up to it and try to make safer cigarettes. (No, they didn't go public and they kept on taking their salaries. Just sayin'.)

The tobacco companies set up a fake research institute, surreptitiously through a law firm, and funded scientists to do research that came to conclusions favorable to the industry. A priority for them at this time was denying that environmental tobacco smoke is dangerous because that created risk of workplace smoking bans and other actions that would de-normalize smoking. (If you're too young to know it, restaurants, bars, airplanes and teachers' lounges and every other public place were full of tobacco smoke back then.) They also set up a fake academic journal with an editorial board dominated by industry consultants to publish "science" favorable to the industry.

As they did this, they knew -- knew full well, and admitted it in internal company documents --  that their product was killing half a million Americans every year, in really horrible ways. They knew it was addictive. They knew they were marketing to children -- they had to, because their business depended on replacing the customers who died. They knew that environmental tobacco smoke also made people sick and killed them. And they continued to publicly deny all this, even under oath, before congress and in civil trials.

Meanwhile, most of the states were suing them to recover Medicaid costs that resulted from their addictive poison. And they started to win. So in 1998, the tobacco companies settled with the states. They had to stop advertising in magazines and billboards. (Congress had already banned TV advertising.) They had to pay millions of dollars every year to the states, forever. And they had to give access to their archives.

That's how we know that they knew, and they were lying and pushing their lies every way they could the whole time. But they kept their wealth and in fact have since added to it immensely by pushing  their poison on the rest of the world, particularly poor countries in Asia. Smoking has declined immensely in the U.S., thanks to counter-advertising, workplace smoking bans, excise taxes, and other tobacco control efforts. Fifteen percent of adults still smoke, and they tend to be people with little education and low incomes. But around the world, there are more smokers than ever and the tobacco executives and shareholders are richer than ever. And they know.

But there are people in jail for selling an ounce of marijuana.


Mark said...

The fossil fuel industry certainly learned a lesson from tobacco.

Don Quixote said...

Great post. You could just as easily be writing about the American arms merchants, or the American auto industry.

Two comments: First, what is typically murderous of the tobacco companies is their marketing to women in particular (in Asia). Realizing there were a whole group of people out there who mostly didn't smoke, they began their death plan for that demographic.

Secondly, 15% of Americans still smoking is a hell of a lot of people. It's the single-most disgusting habit I've ever encountered. Smokers tend to have a more intimate relationship with the drugs than with people or pets, so it also isolates people before it kills them. And the smell and dirt--ugh.

Anonymous said...

Who wants to live in Portland now?

So how do you tell the good guys from the bad guys?

Just look to see who's trying to hide their identities. Only those who are doing something wrong and don't want to be identified and held accountable wear masks.

Don Quixote said...

Anonymous isn't just stupid. He's weird.

Don Quixote said...

I just want to say apropos of nothing that Donald J. Trump is the single-most disgusting human being I've ever seen. What does it say that Americans elected such a person?