Smoke and mirrors in the tobacco industry

The Scotsman and The New Zealand Dominion, February 22 1988

Anyone who knows anything about conspiracies, knows that for the best results the conspirators should meet in a smoke-filled room. This is particularly apt if you consider the case of the tobacco kings.

In a court case in Newark, New Jersey, three of the biggest tobacco companies in the United States are fighting off the family of Rose Cipollino, a devoted smoker who died of lung cancer in 1984, aged 58. A couple of times, dimly through the haze, the trial has caught some intriguing glimpses of the plotters in the backroom.

The most revealing glimpses have come from Dr James Mold, a research scientist who worked for one of the companies from 1955 to 1984, who told how in the early 1970s he discovered solid evidence that smoking causes cancer – a link which the companies continue to dispute. The doctor explained that he had succeeded in isolating the specific materials in tobacco smoke which produced tumours in the skin of laboratory mice. But, he said, this most significant finding was not shared with the world’s smokers because his employers, Ligget Group Inc., ordered him to suppress it.

Dr Mold also disclosed that at the same time the company developed a ‘safe cigarette’, which eliminated many of the cancer-causing elements of tobacco smoke – an enormous potential boon to nicotine addicts. But the new cigarette was never marketed. The court was told that internal Liggett documents show that the company feared that by selling a safe cigarette, they would be conceding that their existing brands were dangerous thus undermining their sales and opening themselves up to legal action.

On the best available estimate, smoking killed 320,000 Americans last year – about 16% of all those who died. The lawyer who is acting for Rose Cipollino’s family, Marc Edell, concludes that: “This is an industry that sacrificed the lives of people like Rose Cipollino for one thing – money, dollars.”

The American tobacco kings are awesomely powerful. Financially, they are worth some $22 billion a year; their exports alone earn $1,210 million; in states like North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia they form the backbone of the local economy. But their real power is political.

They are the most skillful exponents of a Great American Tradition, according to which big corporations use their wealth – in smoke-filled rooms if necessary – to buy favours from politicians. In many other countries it would be regarded as corrupt, but here it is lawful and commonplace.

The budget bill which Congress passed at the end of last year was stuffed with favours as politicians honoured their corporate debts: $100 million of tax concessions for the country’s two biggest chicken producers; $25 million for some Texan businessmen to build an unnecessary airport; $520,000 for a bunch of cranberry and blueberry farmers. But it is the tobacco kings who play the power game best.

Sometimes, they disguise their work. In New York last week, the transport authorities tried to outlaw smoking on commuter trains. In an apparently spontaneous outburst of resentment, smokers formed a pressure group, took over a carriage which they declared an ‘Unauthorised Smoking Car’, collectively defied the new law, went to the state Supreme Court to challenge its legality and pressurised local politicians to support them. However, this turns out to be just one more glimpse of the smoke-filled room: the group is being funded by a tobacco company, Philip Morris Inc.

Other times, they are more obvious. In Virginia last month, a delegate to the state assembly, Bernard Cohen, made himself probably the loneliest politician in the United States by trying to introduce a law to ban smoking in all public places in the state, which is the very cradle of the tobacco industry. Mr Cohen, who gave up smoking 27 years ago, was not merely defeated. He was completely flattened.

Delegates from tobacco-growing districts ostentatiously lit up as Mr Cohen rose to introduce his bill. The Speaker of the House lit his pipe. Two hundred ‘members of the public’ who had been bused in by one of the tobacco companies crowded the public gallery. Mr Cohen tried to compromise. He agreed to limit the scope of the bill so that smoking would be forbidden only in lifts, school buses and hospital emergency rooms. No chance. He agreed to remove all legal penalties for those who broke the law, so that it was no more than a polite request to desist. No chance. “Both smokers and non-smokers have rights,” he pleaded. They snuffed him out.

In California, the tobacco kings have been using lawyers, lobbyists and a small fortune in contributions to local politicians to get their way. Their efforts climaxed in a bizarre meeting in Sacramento in a Chinese restaurant called Fat Frank’s. A magazine here, the Washington Monthly, caught them in the act.

Huddled around their table, the lobbyists used a restaurant napkin to scribble out a deal which ended a long-standing squabble which centered on two California groups: the tobacco companies who had been trying to stop people suing them; and the local lawyers who had been trying to make it easier for people to sue, so that they could earn more money from the litigation. Each side had been trying to push new laws through the state assembly where they were described as ‘juice bills’ because of the amount of cash which politicians could earn by taking sides on them.

Now, they had reached a point known as ‘lobby lock’ –  each side had enough political influence to stymie the other, but neither could win. That night in Fat Frank’s they struck a deal. It was complex, but somewhere under the jumble of words, the lawyers got a guarantee that they would earn a bigger percentage of future damage awards in California’s courts, and the tobacco companies got state law changed so that no-one could sue the manufacturers of ‘inherently dangerous products such as tobacco’.

The napkin was taken to the state assembly the next day, which happened to be the last day of the legislative session. Its contents sailed on to the statute books without debate with 500 other last-minute bills. The people of California, including those among them who have lung cancer, knew nothing until it was too late.

The effect of the bill is to prevent any smoker in California from suing a tobacco company. It also blocks the 27 cases which were already on their way through the state’s courts. Similar laws are now being pushed through at least ten other states as well as through the House of Representatives in Washington. If they go onto the statute book, they will stop 125 smoker-litigants who are currently going after the tobacco kings, including the family of Rose Cipollino. As the Washington Monthly put it:”At this rate, it won’t be long before tobacco companies enjoy the kind of immunity usually reserved for Mafia informants.”

In the meantime, the tobacco kings are trying to make up for their shrinking market in the United States by running an aggressive sales drive in the Far East. In Korea, they ran into a trade embargo, so they hired two of President Reagan’s most senior former aides to use White House muscle to get their way. In Japan, where smoking was on the decline, they have reversed the trend and succeeded in expanding the tobacco market by two per cent in the last nine months.

As a result of their efforts, lung cancer in Asia is soaring from 600,000 cases a year to a projected two million by the year 2000. When the Department of Health in Washington tried to hold a conference on the health implications of this sales drive, the White House stepped in and cancelled it. In Washington, it helps to have friends.