Bearing Witness for Tobacco

By Maggi, Laura | The American Prospect, March 27, 2000 | Go to article overview

Bearing Witness for Tobacco


Maggi, Laura, The American Prospect


In 1994, before book after book documented how the tobacco industry had successfully manipulated the public's perceptions about smoking, the eminent historian and author Stephen E. Ambrose took the stand in a Louisiana case brought by Gere Covert, a Baton Rouge attorney who decided to sue after the death of his wife, a longtime smoker, from lung cancer. Testifying for the big four tobacco companies and their lobbying arm, Ambrose hammered home the industry's line: The risks of smoking have been known for decades if not centuries, so smokers who got sick made a knowing choice.

Ambrose spun a compelling narrative, arguing that since Columbus first plucked tobacco from the Indians the public has had a sense that smoking can't possibly be healthy. For proof he cited the nineteenth-century anti-tobacco temperance movements, old slang like "coffin nails" and "cancer sticks," and the abundance of news stories printed in the 1950s and 1960s as scientists began to accumulate data powerfully suggesting a link between cigarettes and lung cancer. Asked by the tobacco attorney what the public awareness of the health risks of smoking was in the 20 years prior to 1966, when warning labels first went on cigarette packs, Ambrose said, "When the warning went on the labels, you would have to have been deaf and blind not to have known that already in the United States." The jury found for the tobacco companies.

Ambrose, of course, was paid (handsomely) by the tobacco industry. And he is not the only outside witness to testify for tobacco. Others include not just tobacco's natural ideological allies, but such liberal social scientists as Theodore R. Marmor, a Yale-based advocate of universal health insurance (and occasional writer for this magazine), and the distinguished medical historian Kenneth M. Ludmerer of Washington University in St. Louis. Like Ambrose, neither Ludmerer nor Marmor is known as an expert on tobacco. Ludmerer was unhappy that the Prospect is identifying him as an expert witness for the industry and was reluctant to be interviewed on the record. Marmor expressed indignation at what he termed "moralistic bullshit." These two men are highly critical in other contexts of for-profit industries that affect the nation's health. So it is a little startling to find them in Big Tobacco's corner.

ARGUING BOTH SIDES OF THE QUESTION

Supposedly expert testimony is used by the tobacco industry in most tobacco lawsuits to describe what a health menace tobacco was widely considered to be--although in other settings, the industry, with the exception of the Liggett Group, still disputes this characterization. Indeed, the industry itself has spent billions of dollars to keep the public from learning just how harmful tobacco is. So if everybody should have known that cigarette smoking was bad for one's health, it was only because the industry had failed to convince the public otherwise.

In the first half of the twentieth century, ads even touted supposed health benefits. Cigarette brands claimed doctor endorsements. Old Gold promised "not a cough in a carload." As studies indicating a connection between smoking and lung cancer began to be widely publicized in the early 1950s, the industry's misinformation campaign challenged research findings and did what it could to suppress them, well past 1964, when the first surgeon general's report concluded smoking could lead to lung cancer and that cigarettes were habit forming.

In 1954 the industry put out its now infamous "Frank Statement," an advertisement in hundreds of newspapers, in which the industry vowed to get to the bottom of the cancer question, establishing a committee to sponsor research. But tobacco-sponsored research was anything but independent, and the industry kept insisting that any hypothetical links between smoking and disease were unproven. The industry pressured newspapers and networks who took advertising dollars not to run editorial material on smoking and health. …

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