Tobacco Science, Climate Denial, and “Free Speech”

May 11, 2016

Not long ago, newly discovered documents revealed that, way back in the 70s, and even before,  Exxon scientists were studying the potential impacts of fossil fuel burning on global climate.(see video at end of this piece)  Now, a group of Attorneys General is starting to ask why, when they knew the science, Oil giants started paying groups like The American Enterprise Institute, the Heartland Institute, and others, to confuse and deny the facts, and misinform customers and investors.

Having been caught out – the dodge we are now seeing is that denying climate science when you know the truth – is exercising “free speech”. Practically a patriotic duty, fer gosh sakes.

Some friends were doing a little searching in the Tobacco archives for examples of how Tobacco apologists were playing the “our right to free speech” card when caught out lying about what their own scientists knew on the effects of Tobacco products.

Turns out the in 1987, Mobil Oil stood up for Big Tobacco’s right to lie to customers and shareholders about the risks of using, and investing in, their products.

Maybe they were looking forward to a time when they might be in the same hot seat?

Stop Fooling Ca on Medium:

Years ago, state and federal prosecutors proved that tobacco companies lied about the dangerous and addictive nature of cigarettes.Big Oil stood up for Big Tobacco’s “right” to lie

Today, state attorneys general are investigating fossil-fuel companies and asking similar questions as their predecessors: what did oil companies know about the dangerous, climate-altering effects of their products, and what did they do to hide that information from investors, the public and policymakers?

The lawsuits against the tobacco companies produced an archive of more than 14 million industry documents, which are available for free to the public. They paint a damning picture of an industry that employed a small army of lawyers and lobbyists to try to hide the truth from the public — and the parallels to the oil industry are undeniable.

Here, video of Tobacco executives exercising “Free Speech”.

For years, tobacco companies and oil companies funded the samegroups, hired the same law firms and the same public relations outfits to achieve the same policy goals — Polluting and harming public health without accountability.

Both industries have even claimed they have a civic right to mislead the public, saying the First Amendment gives them free license to say what they’d like. Just like many of the statements Big Oil and Tobacco make, that is not true. In fact, in 2006, a federal judge presiding over a major tobacco case ruled the First Amendment doesn’t protect statements that are known to be false — such as downplaying the harms of their product.

Big Oil stood up for Big Tobacco’s “right” to lie, too

Oil and tobacco companies weren’t just working together behind the scenes.

Case and point: this 1987 ad (above) from Mobil (yes, that Mobil) which defends the tobacco company R.J. Reynolds’s right to lie to people about cigarettes and heart disease. (We know the font’s little, so we reproduced the ad text in full below.)

So it’s interesting to hear ExxonMobil, the present-day incarnation of Mobil, invoke free speech protections when pushing back against subpoenas from attorneys general, claiming it has a First Amendment right to deceive the public about climate science. They’ll be lucky if that argument holds up in court. After all, they’ve hired the samelawyers who lost the Department of Justice’s fraud case against the tobacco companies.

After a protracted legal fight, R.J. Reynolds eventually settled with the FTC and agreed not to take out advertisements with misleading statements about health risks from smoking.

If reading this shocks you or makes you mad, please share this post on Facebook and Twitter. The oil companies and the tobacco companies can’t be allowed to hide from what they’ve done.

Copy of the ad on the tobacco archives from Mobil (emphasis added).

Free speech is under assault

A basic tenet of our system requires free, unfettered speech to sustain a robust and open marketplace of ideas — a marketplace in which even unpopular views may be espoused and considered. If any groups or opinions are excluded, the marketplace becomes distorted and the right to be heard is weakened for all of us.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with various opinions on smoking or gambling, for example, all points of view have the right to be heard — particularly when the acts involved are perfectly legal. Indeed, even if certain acts are illegal — as the sale of alcohol was during Prohibition — those who favor a change in the law should have the right to voice their opinions. If they lose that right, how would laws ever get changed?

Until recently, little doubt existed about First Amendment protections for free speech. Corporations were felt to have as much right as individualsto advertise their views on public issues — the U.S. Supreme Court said they did in 1978 in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti. Even “commercial speech” — advertising a product — has First Amendment protection, other decisions held, so long as the ads meet certain condition such as making no claims that are factually false or misleading.

But now, political and commercial speech by business is threatened, and First Amendment guarantees seem weakened:

· A Federal Trade Commission complaint last Spring sought to prevent R.J. Reynolds Company from running further advertisements like the one titled “Of cigarettes and science.” That ad, in national publications, was alleged by the FTC to be “misleading,” even though it did not push any of the company’s cigarette brands or encourage smoking. In the format of a newspaper editorial, it simply contended that a $115 million federal research study failed to prove conclusively any link between cigarettes and heart disease. “We do not claim this study proves that smoking doesn’t cause heart disease,” the ad said, only that “the controversy over smoking and health remains an open one.”

· A 5-to-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision in July upheld Puerto Rico’s refusal to let its legal gambling casinos advertise to the local population, although they are allowed to lure tourists by advertising off the island. Since government has the right to forbid gambling, the court reasoned, it can take “the less intrusive step” of “reducing demand through restrictions on advertising.” But is there any more intrusive action in our democracy than “muzzling” free speech? As the FTC’s new chairman Daniel Oliver — long dissenter in the 4-to-1 Reynolds decision — said: “…it is valuable for the public to hear all sides…I am concerned about…any action that may inhibit free expression of views that might not be popular with government regulators.”

Freedom of speech in America is not simply a means to an end but an end in itself. As the Supreme Court held six years ago in Consolidated Edison Company of New York v. Public Service Commission of New York: “If the marketplace of ideas is to remain free and open, governments must not be allowed to choose which ideas are worth discussing and debating.” Even for governments to restrict dissemination of views on public issues in commercial speech “strikes at the heart of the First Amendment.” Justice Blackmun said at that time in a companion case, labeling this “…a covert attempt…to manipulate the choices of its citizens…by depriving the public of the information needed to make a free choice.”

Fortunately, recent administrative review held that R. J. Reynolds ad to be legitimate “editorial commentary” not subject to FTC censorship. Let us hope the Supreme Court will also come to look upon its Puerto Rico casino decision as an aberration, not a precedent.

For if the First Amendment rights can be denied to casinos and cigarettes, will government be moved by concern over cholesterol to ban ads pushing milk, butter and cheese? Then to crack down on TV commercials showing speeding cars on test tracks lest they encourage violations of the 55 m.p.h. limit? Erosion of a fundamental right, once started, can be as hard to stop as a truck racing downhill without brakes.

Once again, Friends don’t let friends continue without seeing this video.

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16 Responses to “Tobacco Science, Climate Denial, and “Free Speech””


  1. […] operative memes are “first amendment”, and “free speech” – the perverse application of which we saw when Tobacco industry executives defended their […]


  2. […] operative memes are “first amendment”, and “free speech” – the perverse application of which we saw when Tobacco industry executives defended their right […]


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