More secret tobacco industry documents revealed

BMJ 1998; 316 doi: (Published 27 June 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;316:1923
  1. Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
  1. BMJ

    Tobacco industry scientists have known since the 1950s that smoking causes cancer while the industry publicly denied the link, according to documents published this week by the anti-smoking pressure group ASH.

    The first comprehensive analysis and summary of internal documents released by whistleblowers and through US litigation also shows that the industry has known since the 1960s that tobacco's crucial selling point is its addictive nature.

    The report, with hundreds of extracts from previously unpublished papers, was released at a meeting of doctors and lawyers on tobacco litigation at the BMA on Thursday. It will be available at ASH's website ( Clive Bates, director of ASH, said: “We expect this report will be of great value to lawyers and victims of tobacco related disease contemplating legal action against the companies. It gives a brilliant insight into what was going on inside the companies and shows that the industry's public statements have been at sharp variance with its private knowledge and behaviour.”

    A report of a 1958 US study tour by scientists from British American Tobacco, which included visits to Philip Morris, American Tobacco, Liggett, and several research institutions, states: “With one exception the individuals with whom we met believed that smoking causes lung cancer, if by ‘causation’ we mean any chain of events which leads finally to lung cancer and which involves smoking as an indispensable link.”

    In 1961 the consulting firm Arthur D Little, working for Liggett, reviewed the results of seven years' research work: “There are biologically active materials present in cigarette smoking,” the report says. “These are a) cancer causing, b) cancer promoting, c) poisonous, d) stimulating, pleasurable and flavorful.” In 1963 a Browne and Williamson lawyer said in a memo: “Nicotine is addictive. We are, then, in the business of selling nicotine, an addictive drug.” A 1979 Tobacco Advisory Council document says: “The effect of switching to low tar cigarettes may be to increase, not decrease, the risks of smoking.”

    The documents show that the industry targeted young people, recognising that they represented “tomorrow's cigarette business” (R J Reynolds, marketing plan for 1975). In 1973 Claude Teague, assistant chief, research and development at Reynolds, wrote: “The fragile, developing self-image of the young person needs all of the support and enhancement it can get … this self-image enhancement effect has traditionally been a strong promotional theme for cigarette brands and should continue to be emphasised.”

    ASH called for tobacco company chief executives to be questioned by a parliamentary select committee and for a government inquiry into corporate malpractice in the industry. John Carlisle of the Tobacco Manufacturers Association said it had not yet seen the report and would not make an official response: “We would rather the courts decide these matters than ASH. We think judges are a better arbiter than a pressure group.”

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