Failure to Play Straight Clouds Tobacco's Future

By Crabtree, Susan | Insight on the News, June 16, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Failure to Play Straight Clouds Tobacco's Future


Crabtree, Susan, Insight on the News


Internal documents surrendered under court order and statements given under oath by former employees suggest tobacco companies have long known of health risks of their products -- just like everybody else.

In the late 15th century, Christopher Columbus made a declaration that tobacco executives still appear incapable of uttering under oath. After he and his crew arrived in the New World, the great navigator chided his sailors for taking up the native custom of smoking leaves of the plant natives called tobacco. But after months of watching his countrymen enveloped by rings of smoke they sucked through Y-shaped pipes, he reportedly observed, "It was not within their power to refrain from indulging in the habit."

Columbus well may have been one of the first to proclaim smoking addictive, doing so from simple observation. Five hundred years later, despite a slew of modern medical research, tobacco executives continue to dodge the charge that smoking not only is addictive but a direct cause of cancer, emphysema and heart disease. Although the Liggett Group's recent admission that tobacco indeed is addictive -- and the company's agreement to release thousands of pages of internal documents, as well as pay millions of dollars to settle medical claims -- has rocked the industry, so far other tobacco companies have not followed suit.

The early-May depositions of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. President and Chief Executive Officer Andrew Schindler and of Lorillard Inc. Chairman Alexander Spears are startling displays of the hedging tobacco executives for years have used to skirt lawsuits. Schindler testified that cigarettes are no more addictive than coffee or carrots, although he acknowledged that his father, a three-pack-a-day man, died of a stroke after a doctor warned him to quit. He also testified that he and his wife both smoke a pack a day and that he has tried to quit twice, only to return to his dependence on cigarettes.

On the same day, Spears said under oath that he doesn't think Americans "die of diseases caused by cigarette smoking."

These revealing depositions, first reported by 60 Minutes, followed April testimony of Philip Morris President James Morgan who compared a smoking addiction to an affinity for candy gummy bears. "If [cigarettes] are behaviorally addictive or habit-forming, they are much more like caffeine, or in my case, gummy bears," Morgan said. "I love gummy bears ... and I want gummy bears and I like gummy bears and I eat gummy bears, and I don't like it when I don't eat gummy bears, but I'm certainly not addicted to them."

Antitobacco advocates call such statements ludicrous. "Everyone knows smoking is addictive," says John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University in Washington and founder of Action on Smoking and Health, the oldest antismoking group in the nation. But apparently even this is relative, as he says not everyone is uniformly addicted and the number of smokers probably has declined to only the most addicted.

The Liggett admission has cast a long shadow on the televised April 1994 congressional hearing at which top executives of the seven leading tobacco companies declared under oath that they didn't believe cigarettes were addictive. As many as seven grand juries are evaluating the veracity of these statements and looking into allegations of corporate fraud and misconduct by the manufacturers in light of the Liggett revelation.

In the 1950s, before the mountain of health studies and lawsuits had accumulated at the foot of big tobacco, the industry defended its products without qualification. Statements of the time reveal an unabashed industry that denounced every allegation that smoking is addictive or might be harmful to health. In 1954, 14 tobacco companies and trade associations responded to concerns of the time in full-page advertisements with a "Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers."

"We believe the products we make are not injurious to health," the statement declared.

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