Addiction Incorporated – the Tobacco Funded Roots of Climate Denial
December 19, 2011
The movie trailer above previews a new examination of the Tobacco industry’s push to addict young people around the world to poison.
One of the vital untold stories of the anti-science movement is the Tobacco industry’s involvement at the roots of climate denial. It happened in the course of funding initiatives originally designed to fend off anti-smoking legislation. The industry decided that the best way to set up phony “grass roots” groups to support them was to avoid being too transparent.
..what I have discovered while researching this issue is that the corporate funding of lobby groups denying that manmade climate change is taking place was initiated not by Exxon, or by any other firm directly involved in the fossil fuel industry. It was started by the tobacco company Philip Morris.
In December 1992, the US Environmental Protection Agency published a 500-page report called Respiratory Health Effects of Passive Smoking. It found that “the widespread exposure to environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) in the United States presents a serious and substantial public health impact. In adults: ETS is a human lung carcinogen, responsible for approximately 3,000 lung cancer deaths annually in US non-smokers. In children: ETS exposure is causally associated with an increased risk of lower respiratory tract infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia. This report estimates that 150,000 to 300,000 cases annually in infants and young children up to 18 months of age are attributable to ETS.”
Had it not been for the settlement of a major class action against the tobacco companies in the US, we would never have been able to see what happened next. But in 1998 they were forced to publish their internal documents and post them on the internet.
Within two months of its publication, Philip Morris, the world’s biggest tobacco firm, had devised a strategy for dealing with the passive-smoking report. In February 1993 Ellen Merlo, its senior vice-president of corporate affairs, sent a letter to William I Campbell, Philip Morris’s chief executive officer and president, explaining her intentions: “Our overriding objective is to discredit the EPA report … Concurrently, it is our objective to prevent states and cities, as well as businesses, from passive-smoking bans.”
To this end, she had hired a public relations company called APCO. She had attached the advice it had given her. APCO warned that: “No matter how strong the arguments, industry spokespeople are, in and of themselves, not always credible or appropriate messengers.”
So the fight against a ban on passive smoking had to be associated with other people and other issues. Philip Morris, APCO said, needed to create the impression of a “grassroots” movement – one that had been formed spontaneously by concerned citizens to fight “overregulation”. It should portray the danger of tobacco smoke as just one “unfounded fear” among others, such as concerns about pesticides and cellphones. APCO proposed to set up “a national coalition intended to educate the media, public officials and the public about the dangers of ‘junk science’. Coalition will address credibility of government’s scientific studies, risk-assessment techniques and misuse of tax dollars … Upon formation of Coalition, key leaders will begin media outreach, eg editorial board tours, opinion articles, and brief elected officials in selected states.”
APCO would found the coalition, write its mission statements, and “prepare and place opinion articles in key markets”. For this it required $150,000 for its own fees and $75,000 for the coalition’s costs.
By May 1993, as another memo from APCO to Philip Morris shows, the fake citizens’ group had a name: the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition. It was important, further letters stated, “to ensure that TASSC has a diverse group of contributors”; to “link the tobacco issue with other more ‘politically correct’ products”; and to associate scientific studies that cast smoking in a bad light with “broader questions about government research and regulations” – such as “global warming”, “nuclear waste disposal” and “biotechnology”. APCO would engage in the “intensive recruitment of high-profile representatives from business and industry, scientists, public officials, and other individuals interested in promoting the use of sound science”.
Naomi Oreskes is Professor of History and Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego, Adjunct Professor of Geosciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and an internationally renowned historian of science and author.
By September 1993, APCO had produced a “Plan for the Public Launching of TASSC”. The media launch would not take place in “Washington, DC or the top media markets of the country. Rather, we suggest creating a series of aggressive, decentralised launches in several targeted local and regional markets across the country. This approach … avoids cynical reporters from major media: less reviewing/challenging of TASSC messages.”
The media coverage, the public relations company hoped, would enable TASSC to “establish an image of a national grassroots coalition”. In case the media asked hostile questions, APCO circulated a sheet of answers, drafted by Philip Morris. The first question was:
“Isn’t it true that Philip Morris created TASSC to act as a front group for it?
“A: No, not at all. As a large corporation, PM belongs to many national, regional, and state business, public policy, and legislative organisations. PM has contributed to TASSC, as we have with various groups and corporations across the country.”
There are clear similarities between the language used and the approaches adopted by Philip Morris and by the organisations funded by Exxon. The two lobbies use the same terms, which appear to have been invented by Philip Morris’s consultants. “Junk science” meant peer-reviewed studies showing that smoking was linked to cancer and other diseases. “Sound science” meant studies sponsored by the tobacco industry suggesting that the link was inconclusive. Both lobbies recognised that their best chance of avoiding regulation was to challenge the scientific consensus. As a memo from the tobacco company Brown and Williamson noted, “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.” Both industries also sought to distance themselves from their own campaigns, creating the impression that they were spontaneous movements of professionals or ordinary citizens: the “grassroots”.
But the connection goes further than that. TASSC, the “coalition” created by Philip Morris, was the first and most important of the corporate-funded organisations denying that climate change is taking place. It has done more damage to the campaign to halt it than any other body.
TASSC did as its founders at APCO suggested, and sought funding from other sources. Between 2000 and 2002 it received $30,000 from Exxon. The website it has financed – JunkScience.com – has been the main entrepot for almost every kind of climate-change denial that has found its way into the mainstream press. It equates environmentalists with Nazis, communists and terrorists. It flings at us the accusations that could justifably be levelled against itself: the website claims, for example, that it is campaigning against “faulty scientific data and analysis used to advance special and, often, hidden agendas”. I have lost count of the number of correspondents who, while questioning manmade global warming, have pointed me there.
The man who runs it is called Steve Milloy. In 1992, he started working for APCO – Philip Morris’s consultants. While there, he set up the JunkScience site. In March 1997, the documents show, he was appointed TASSC’s executive director. By 1998, as he explained in a memo to TASSC board members, his JunkScience website was was being funded by TASSC. Both he and the “coalition” continued to receive money from Philip Morris. An internal document dated February 1998 reveals that TASSC took $200,000 from the tobacco company in 1997. Philip Morris’s 2001 budget document records a payment to Steven Milloy of $90,000. Altria, Philip Morris’s parent company, admits that Milloy was under contract to the tobacco firm until at least the end of 2005.
He has done well. You can find his name attached to letters and articles seeking to discredit passive-smoking studies all over the internet and in the academic databases. He has even managed to reach the British Medical Journal: I found a letter from him there which claimed that the studies it had reported “do not bear out the hypothesis that maternal smoking/ passive smoking increases cancer risk among infants”. TASSC paid him $126,000 in 2004 for 15 hours’ work a week. Two other organisations are registered at his address: the Free Enterprise Education Institute and the Free Enterprise Action Institute. They have received $10,000 and $50,000 respectively from Exxon. The secretary of the Free Enterprise Action Institute is Thomas Borelli. Borelli was the Philip Morris executive who oversaw the payments to TASSC.
Milloy also writes a weekly Junk Science column for the Fox News website. Without declaring his interests, he has used this column to pour scorn on studies documenting the medical effects of second-hand tobacco smoke and showing that climate change is taking place. Even after Fox News was told about the money he had been receiving from Philip Morris and Exxon, it continued to employ him, without informing its readers about his interests.