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Tobacco's Pr Campaign : The Cigarette Papers

September 18, 1994|MICHAEL J. GOODMAN | Contributing editor Michael J. Goodman's last article for the magazine was a profile of Dodger catcher Mike Piazza. Julia Franco provided research assistance for this article

War. Mighty tobacco against the U.S. surgeon general, the Food and Drug Administration, federal and state and local politicians, the media, the no-smoking crusaders, lawyers for dead and dying cigarette smokers.

Attacks against cigarette makers grew more ferocious this year. Tobacco's skeletons popped out monthly in media exposes and in testimony before Rep. Henry A. Waxman's congressional committee hearings. Politicians papered the nation with proposed legislation to ban smoking here, there and everywhere. More recent, more ominous, is the FDA Drug Abuse Advisory Committee's conclusion that cigarettes could be classified as a drug because of nicotine. That decision is crucial if the FDA decides to regulate tobacco products.

Government control of nicotine alone portends a death rattle for tobacco's allure. At stake is $45.3 billion a year in cigarette sales and 2.3 million tobacco-dependent jobs. Understandably, cigarette makers dare not weaken. They must doggedly defend the smoke they sell. And money is their shield, their weapon. With it, they reward the friendly and savage the enemy through a legion of scientists, lawyers, publicists and lobbyists. Their approach is nothing new. It was conceived in 1953 during a similar anti-smoking frenzy--so far, it has worked.

What follows is a keyhole peek into the genesis, reasoning and execution of tobacco's strategy these 40 years. The story is told by the participants themselves through excerpts drawn from confidential notes, memos and letters never intended for public rummaging. We focus on the decade before and the decade following the 1964 U.S. surgeon seneral's report that concluded that smoking can kill.


It is 1953. New scientific studies have connected cigarettes to lung disease. America has awakened to the dangers of smoking. Scientists have begun to expose the connections between cigarettes and lung disease. Shaken by unrelenting bad press and declining tobacco stocks, the chief executive officers of six leading cigarette makers--American Tobacco Co., R. J. Reynolds, Philip Morris, Benson & Hedges, U.S. Tobacco Co. and Brown & Williamson--agreed that "drastic action" was necessary. They held a historic secret meeting Dec. 15, 1953, in New York City with John Hill, a founder of Hill & Knowlton, the world-class public-relations firm. Their mission was to plan tobacco's counterattack.

". . . before the current health crisis arose, cigarette manufacturers never met together at any time except at dinners honoring some industry leader. (Tobacco should) sponsor a public relations campaign which is positive in nature and is entirely 'pro-cigarettes.' The current plans are for Hill & Knowlton to serve as the operating agency of the companies, hiring all the staff and disbursing all funds." (Hill & Knowlton memo, Dec. 15, 1953.)

"The situation is one of extreme delicacy. There is much at stake . . . . There is nothing the manufacturers can say or refrain from saying that can stop people from being interested in their health, nor allay their fear of cancer. So long as the causes and cure of this dread disease remain unknown, people will be subject to waves of fear regarding it.

"We should create a committee with 'research' in the title so that the public recognize the existence of weighty scientific views which hold there is no proof that cigarette smoking is a cause of lung cancer . . . . The underlying purpose of any activity at this stage should be reassurance of the public . . . . this project would explore such questions as: Why do mice show no tendency to develop lung cancer in experiments where they live half their lives in smoke filled chambers? Why has the rise in lung cancer been most marked among men, although the greatest rise in the use of cigarettes in the last 25 years seems to have been among women? What are the benefits and enjoyment derived from smoking . . . ? What are the smoking habits of long-lived distinguished public leaders? What are the human ills erroneously attributed to tobacco over the centuries?" (Hill & Knowlton memo to cigarette executives, Dec. 24, 1953.)

Cigarette manufacturers followed Hill & Knowlton's advice. They formed the Tobacco Industry Research Committee in January, 1954, with a first-year budget of $1.2 million and supported by 23 Hill & Knowlton employees.


The Tobacco Industry Research Committee's media blitz began with a two-page advertisement: "A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers," which appeared Jan. 5, 1954, in 448 newspapers with a cumulative circulation of 43 million. The ad was followed in April with "A Scientific Perspective on the Cigarette Controversy," a booklet quoting 36 scientists questioning smoking's link to health problems.

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