No matter how hard you try, you don’t hate the tobacco industry nearly enough.
Oh, I know, the 5 million tobacco-related deaths a year worldwide provoke intense revulsion, as does the $289 billion a year price tag for U.S. tobacco-related illness ($133 billion for direct medical costs and $156 billion for lost productivity), not counting the billions in lost productivity from second-hand smoke.
But it gets worse. Based on a series of articles written by British researcher Mark Petticrew, the tobacco industry has been systematically subverting the scientific process, changing reality to fit its needs as only a multi-zillionaire evil empire can do. And not just little stuff—you know, like paying some poor slob in a lab to creatively adjust results in a series of mouse experiments. No, they went after some of the largest ideas of the 20th century by seducing medical giants with money and false friendships: Hans Selye, the Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist who introduced the world to the concept that stress can be bad for one’s health, and cardiologists Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman, who coined the term “Type A personality” and promoted the role of this type of behavior in the development of heart disease.
Petticrew, working through a treasure trove of papers from the 1950s on, has found convincing documentation that this manifestation of Big Tobacco’s misinformation movement may eclipse even the jaw-dropping 1994 testimony to Congress by the leaders of the “Big Seven” tobacco companies who averred—with a straight face and a hand on a Bible—that in their opinion, nicotine was not addictive.
As Petticrew wrote in 2011, Selye, the self-styled “Father of Stress,” had done important work in the 1930s and 1940s. He ventured off the beaten medical path to establishing a physiologic basis for the relationship between emotions—aka stress—and physical health. The Tobacco Chronicles do not place any of his groundbreaking scientific work into question; these were observations—perhaps a little nutty and not so correct, but honestly come by—made long before Selye got hooked by Tobacco. That addiction came in the 1960s and 1970s when the cigarette industry was looking for cover from the welter of evidence linking cigarettes to cancer and heart disease.
They pursued two distinct approaches. First, they promoted the concept that there was a condition called “stress” that could kill you, and a remedy—a carton of you-know-whats—that could settle nerves and improve overall health. As they worked to establish that smoking could be “prophylactic and curative” against the manifold health threats mediated by stress—cancer, heart disease, the willies—they needed an expert in their corner. By the ’60s, Selye was the brand-name in stress and, according to the papers uncovered by Petticrew, a guy who didn’t see much harm in a puff or two (though he never smoked cigarettes).
Big Tobacco didn’t have Selye claim that smoking was a good antidote to stress. Rather, they supported his research to the tune of a few hundred thousand dollars, “co-wrote” think pieces with him, and occasionally trotted him out for interviews to make his claim that it was stress—not cigarettes—causing all the trouble.
This latter approach (it’s not the cigarettes, stupid, it’s the person needing the cigarettes) was pushed harder in Tobacco’s relationship with Friedman and Rosenman of Type A personality fame. According to Petticrew’s 2012 article, they too had made their initial important observations before they fell under the influence of Big Tobacco. But perhaps from deep and stubborn belief that their view linking a high-strung, super-agitated personality to higher risk for heart attacks was correct, they were susceptible to the notion that cigarettes weren’t that big a problem. For them, the smoking gun was the personality—not the smokes.
It is sobering and extremely disappointing to find that heroes of past generations played it so close to the dark side. But then again, scientists are just as vain as the next group: thrilled when someone pays attention, doubly thrilled when someone knows their work, and uncontrollably ecstatic when someone throws a few “consultant” bucks their way. (If you don’t believe me, try sitting in a lab for a few months or years in a row, pipetting liquids, feeding hamsters, and writing obscure articles for more-obscure medical journals. It can twist around just about anyone.)
More concerning is the hard truth this reveals about the incursion of business—no matter how well intentioned—into the business of science. This is the crux of the much ballyhooed but never tested future of our public infrastructure: the public-private partnership http://www.ncppp.org/. For decades, many have looked to this model to promote health innovation nationally, and to replace the work no longer done by the grossly underfunded National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, medical schools, and clinical trials networks.
The profit motive is too strong a force to be trusted in something as critical as human health, tempting though the big bucks may be. Rather, to stay above board and far from the naturally corrupting reach of Big Industry—be it Tobacco or Pharma—science must be funded exclusively by that veteran dray horse: the American taxpayer.