Inside Big Tobacco’s Academy of Lies, the Inventor of ‘Alternative Facts’

Don’t like the science? Then invent one you do like. It was one of America’s greatest snow jobs, costing millions of lives. And it’s happening again with climate change and this time billions of lives are at stake.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

The world is warmer than it’s ever been since records began to be kept in 1880. The Antarctic ice sheet is melting so fast it alone is responsible for 10 percent of the global rise in sea levels. The coral bleaching of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, a direct result of global warming, is now virtually irreversible.

All this as the Trump administration abandons measures to combat climate change and gives climate change deniers full powers to put the brake on any scientific research devoted to establishing a link between climate change and human activity. Goodbye Planet Earth.

This is the willful corruption of science in the cause of ideology. But we’ve been here before. To understand how this game is played, we can go back to what you could call the foundation of the Liars’ Academy, the professionalization of the crafting of alternative scientific facts.

It’s generally thought that the turning point in establishing a direct link between smoking and cancer came with the U.S. surgeon general’s report of 1964. Drawing on 7,000 scientific studies and the work of 150 consultants, the report demonstrated that the death rate among smokers was 70 percent higher than among non-smokers.

In fact, the first really authoritative warning about smoking came in 1953, when Alton Ochsner, president of the American Cancer Society and the American College of Surgeons, predicted that the male population would be decimated unless steps were taken to reduce the cancer producing content of cigarettes.

At this point any link between smoking and cancer had not been acknowledged by the National Cancer Institute or the U.S. Public Health Service or most of the medical establishment. (As late as 1958 a Gallup survey showed that only 44 percent of Americans believed smoking caused cancer.)

A top R.J. Reynolds executive, Claude Teague, had reviewed the same evidence as Ochsner and reported, “Studies of clinical data tend to confirm the relationship between heavy and prolonged tobacco smoking and incidence of cancer of the lung.”

All copies of Teague’s report were collected and destroyed, and a week after Oschner’s speech six tobacco company presidents met to take stock of the threat now facing them. As a result, they called in John Hill, founder of the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton. What followed was a strategy described by a lawyer as “the industry’s ultimate public relations sham.”

Hill & Knowlton advised the companies:

“There is only one problem—confidence and how to establish it; public assurance and how to create it—in a perhaps long interim when scientific doubts must remain. And, most important, how to free millions of Americans from the guilty fear that is going to arise deep in their biological depths—regardless of any pooh-poohing logic—every time they light a cigarette.”

This marked the beginning of what became, literally, an industrial scale exercise in the promotion of an alternative scientific reality. It involved not just alternative facts but an entire body of false scientific argument to deny that smoking caused cancer. This was the work of an unholy alliance of tobacco company executives, public relations flacks, corporate lawyers, scientists, politicians, and gullible media.

The full extent of the conspiracy was revealed only in 2001, when David Kessler, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, and relentless foe of the tobacco industry, published his memoir, A Question of Intent.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

(Personal disclosure: I was one of a team of researchers who worked with Kessler on the book.)

It is timely to revisit this story because, among other things, it demonstrates that the daily flood of alternative facts from the White House builds on the foundation of Big Tobacco’s model of disinformation. There is no need to compare this with the propaganda machine of Nazi Germany or of any totalitarian state. In its reach and sophistication it is a wholly American achievement.

For more than four decades Big Tobacco had one objective: to maintain the pretense that the link between smoking and cancer remained unproven. In that method it anticipated the entire strategy of climate change deniers, to argue that even if the earth was warming up there was no link between that and human activity. In order to pursue their disinformation campaign the tobacco industry had to produce its own alternative facts—or alternative science.

Hill & Knowlton outlined a four-point strategy to deal with scientific critics: “(a) smearing or belittling them (b) trying to overwhelm them with mass publication of the opposed viewpoints of other specialties (c) debating them in the public arena; or (d) we can determine to raise the issue far above them, so they are hardly even mentioned, and then we can make our case.”

The first step in pursuing this strategy was to set up a body that looked and sounded like an authoritative scientific enterprise, then to staff it with scientists prepared to sell themselves to the mission. It was named the Council for Scientific Research, CTR, and its director was a Harvard-educated cancer researcher of international renown, Clarence Cook Little. He, in turn, recruited similarly illustrious peers to the cause.

All of these supposed experts were satisfied that they could rest their reputations securely on the narrow premise on the “unproven” link. In this they were abetted by lawyers who discovered that when cases against the tobacco industry came to court juries were inclined to believe that smoking was a personal choice. So-called scientific witnesses supported attorneys who argued that “association cannot prove causation.”

“Everyone was molded according to the script,” one industry official told Kessler later as he investigated the record.

Kessler, respectful of C.C. Little’s reputation, could not understand how he could have gone along with the CTR’s strategy. He went through Little’s private papers and found no answer. He did, however, find a letter to Little from Charles Huggins, a Nobel laureate cancer researcher at the University of Chicago. Huggins pleaded with Little: “Please leave the tobacco industry to stew in its own juice…[it] is criminal to promote smoking. It is dastardly. This is the Age of the Hollow Man. Let it not be known as the age when our finest thinkers sell out.”

Eventually the industry decided that the CTR was not as effective as it should have been. In 1964, following the surgeon general’s report, the alternative facts campaign had another instrument, Special Projects. This had no official address, no incorporation papers, no board of directors, no by-laws and no accountability.

In fact, Special Projects marked the ascendancy of lawyers. David Hardy, of the law firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon, began looking for scientists and physicians prepared to testify against the surgeon general’s report before Congress. Special Projects was run by the general counsels of the tobacco companies, supported by Shook, Hardy and the Washington, D.C. law firm Covington & Butling.

Kessler discovered that every decision, every research project, every public presentation, went through lawyers who had one prevailing concern: liability.

Kessler found an industry source who was prepared to talk as long he remained identified only as “Veritas.” Discussing the lawyers involved in Special Projects, Kessler asked, “Where did they cross the line?”

“When you commission the research and know the outcome, that’s fraudulent. When you market that as the truth, that’s evil,” Veritas replied.

The cynicism of the operation could sometimes catch a rooky lawyer unawares. One recent law school graduate working for another law firm, Wachell, Lipton, involved with Big Tobacco pointed out that the industry money flowing to the firm was being “used to purchase favorable judicial or legislative testimony, thereby perpetrating a fraud on the public.”

He asked for guidance from more senior colleagues. There was no record of the response. We are fond of describing America as a nation of laws. Maybe so, but we are also a nation of lawyers, and you get what you can pay for.

Although the industry’s main effort was directed at squashing litigation, there was a more subtle program of “managing the social climate for tobacco use.” The industry always worked hard to recruit young smokers—after all, the market had always to replace the people being killed off by smoking with another generation of initiates. They noticed that anti-smoking campaigns were beginning to work among teens. In response they branded public health advocates as the enforcers of political correctness, even commissioning a theater group to satirize “the new puritanism.”

Kessler discovered that at Philip Morris successful manipulation of the story wasn’t thought to be enough. Part of a top secret plan called Operation Rainmaker was that they should not only shape the story but own the means of delivering it. Notes for a meeting in 1990 said, “If we are to truly influence the public policy agenda and the information flow to the populace, we must be the media…the only way to do this is to own a major media outlet.”

The proposed targets included the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain; the Copley News Service, United Press International and U.S. News & World Report.

This plot never came to pass. But in some cases Big Tobacco didn’t need to buy the media because the media gave them a pass. Perhaps the most egregious example of this was in a surprising place: the newsroom of The New York Times.

For years some of the most rigorously sustained reporting on Big Tobacco had been the work of Philip Hilts in the Washington bureau of the Times. Hilts had a deep grasp of scientific detail and a passion for pursuing the secrets of how the ingredients of cigarettes were manipulated to create addiction. After a lot of digging Hilts discovered that in Philip Morris’s Benson & Hedges brand there had been a significant rise in the levels of nicotine. Company research had described these levels as “optimum.”

Following publication of the Benson & Hedges story, Philip Morris executives went ballistic and demanded that the paper print a correction. The editors refused, saying that no error had been made.

However, in the Times newsroom some editors had developed a “not another tobacco story” resistance, feeling apparently that there was little left that could surprise. And a week later, Soma Golden Behr, assistant managing editor for national news, called Hilts to New York. Over lunch Behr told Hilts that his tobacco beat was finished and he was reassigned. For two years, until 1999, the Times basically dropped the story.

In that period Alix Freedman of The Wall Street Journal won a Pulitzer for her coverage of Big Tobacco.

Kessler thought Hilts’s reporting had been invaluable and later sought to find out why he had been pulled from the story. He decided that it wasn’t directly a result of the Philip Morris intervention. It was more a dumb misjudgment by editors who thought that the reporter had become too committed to one story.

There is a moral to this, and one I know well from personal experience. Obsession can be the difference between a reporter who sees no further than the news cycle and one who implicitly understands where a story is really going and will stick with it until it gets there. Obsession is good. And when you’re up against alternative facts it’s indispensable.

In his time as FDA Commissioner, under presidents Bush and Clinton, from 1990 to 1997, Kessler was the most formidable opponent ever faced by Big Tobacco. The Supreme Court ultimately refused to accept his case that tobacco should be classified as a drug and therefore that it should be regulated by the agency.

Nonetheless his agency’s investigations finally exposed the lethal secret that the industry had hidden beneath its mountain of alternative facts: cigarettes were, basically, a nicotine delivery system, nicotine led to addiction, everything that could be done to strengthen the dose of nicotine was done, and nicotine addiction killed.

Kessler also proved in chilling detail that the public good can suffer grievous harm as a result of a deliberate and sustained campaign to corrupt science and defer for generations the acceptance of scientific fact. Climate change is a far greater threat than smoking ever was. The ethic of the Liars’ Academy has now been incorporated into main stream politics: the methods of denial haven’t changed, but the stakes are now so much higher. And, as with smoking, there is no concern for future generations, just a greedy defense of the indefensible.