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How the spin doctors talked up tobacco as thousands died

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AUSTRALIA — Cigarette companies knew as early as the 1950s that they would need a healthy image to protect their profits. Soon after British researcher Sir Richard Doll linked smoking with lung cancer in 1950, tobacco companies embarked on a concerted campaign aimed at ensuring their survival.

The chief executives of Philip Morris, Benson & Hedges, US Tobacco, R. J. Reynolds and Brown & Williams met in New York and agreed to “go along with a public relations program on the health issue.”

Their position would be that there was no scientific basis for the cancer claims. and that “sensational accusations” were being made by scientists in a bid to increase research funding.

The public relations company, Hill and Knowlton, was retained to do the spin and it set about its task by interviewing the scientific directors of the tobacco companies.

According to a document produced by Hill and Knowlton, one of the directors said, “It’s fortunate for us that cigarettes are a habit they can’t break.” Another said: “Boy, wouldn’t it be wonderful if our (underlined) company was the first to produce a cancer-free cigarette.”

Hill and Knowlton found that after years of competing, these scientific directors now found themselves “thrown for a loop.” The old “hypnotic claims” about what their brands could do for smokers were no longer important. “The burden of proof has shifted. It is no longer up to the scientists to prove that cigarettes cause lung cancer. It is the duty of all concerned to prove they do not.”

But rather than try to confront the health issue, the companies saw the real problem as one of “confidence and how to establish it; public assurance, and how to create it.” Reassuring was the fact that “no one who has been a heavy smoker is going to benefit himself now by falling into a panic and eliminating the pleasure and comfort of cigarettes.”

The public relations company identified a choice of strategies for dealing with those raising concerns: smear and belittle them, try to overwhelm them with mass publication of opposing views, and debating them were some options.

At the time about 22,000 people in the United States died of lung cancer each year. The American Lung Association says there were 156,900 deaths from lung cancer in the United States in 2000. In Australia more than 7,500 people die of lung cancer each year.

The Hill and Knowlton document is one of thousands obtained by Slater & Gordon in the past five years in the company’s quest for incriminating evidence against tobacco companies.

As revealed in this week’s finding by Victorian Supreme Court judge Justice Geoffrey Eames, internal tobacco company documents have been at the heart of health-related smoking claims in recent years. Millions of documents were placed on websites and released in public depositories as part-settlement of legal actions in the United States several years ago.

Lawyers, anti-smoking and public health groups have trawled through the records with a fine-tooth comb looking for material that would assist seriously ill smokers in proving that the companies knew smoking caused lung cancer and that nicotine was addictive.

Justice Eames found that British American Tobacco Australia Services and its lawyers, Clayton Utz, had destroyed thousands of documents since the mid-1980s as part of a strategy to avoid them being produced in court.

Peter Gordon of Slater & Gordon says the documents reveal that tobacco company lawyers in the United States and United Kingdom were involved in a conspiracy to erase sensitive material.

He told The Age that under a secret pact made by tobacco companies in the 1950s no one was allowed to concede that smoking could cause cancer.

The tight bond was broken in 1958 when the world director of Rothmans, Patrick O’Neil-Dunne, placed an advertisement in a Canadian newspaper accepting “the greater the tars reduction in tobacco smoke, the greater the reduction in the possible risk of lung cancer.”

Mr. O’Neil-Dunne later said the weight of statistical evidence linking lung cancer and heavy smoking “can no longer be rejected.”

The advertisement and his comments hit the industry like a tidal wave and were disputed by the industry, which continued to deny the link.