Robert Proctor's war against Big Tobacco
"Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition" by Robert N. Proctor; University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London; 752 pp.; $49.95
On Dec. 14, 1953, the world's leading tobacco executives met at the Plaza Hotel in downtown Manhattan to discuss a rapidly approaching storm.
The secret gathering, which featured top officials from American Tobacco, Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds and other industry titans, took place at a time of widespread worry for the industry. The New England Journal of Medicine had published an editorial about a recent epidemiological study that the journal said yielded "evidence of an association between cigarette smoking and lung cancer so strong as to be considered proof within the everyday meaning of the word."
The month before the meeting, a panel set up by Britain's chief medical officer in the Ministry of Health concluded that there is a "real" connection between smoking and lung cancer. On a separate note, a team of scientists led by Ernest Wynder induced cancers in mice earlier that year by painting tars from tobacco smoke on their skins. These experiments took place a year after the International Union Against Cancer issued a resolution that "there is now evidence of an association between cigarette smoking and cancer of the lung, and that the association is in general proportional to the total consumption."
These were by no means the first studies documenting the link between cigarettes and cancer. As early as 1900, Anton Brosch rubbed "tobacco juice" on a guinea pig and watched epithelial tissues grow on an old scar. Three decades later, Argentinean scientist Angel Roffo linked tar from tobacco to cancers on lab animals, sparking other studies of similar nature. But the pioneering work remained on the fringes of science. By the early 1950s, that began to change. The link between cigarettes and lung cancer, once hazy, was now solidifying in the public imagination. The industry needed to fight back.
The meeting at the Plaza Hotel, which is detailed in Robert Proctor's new book, "Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition," didn't focus on the health risks of cigarettes but rather on the risk to the industry's profits and reputation. As Proctor demonstrates in this monumental and scathing work, Big Tobacco had been enjoying a period of unprecedented growth and prosperity up until this period of scientific consensus.
The practice of smoking tobacco has been around for several millennia, going back to the highlands of Peru and Ecuador, where people rolled up and smoked tobacco leaves thousands of years before the common era. Tobacco reached France in the 16th century and by the mid-1800s European scientists had begun to probe its toxic and intoxicating properties. Those early cigarettes, however, had little in common with the sleek, elegant rods we think of today. They were more like cigars — wrapped in leaf, smoked by the elite and difficult to inhale.
That changed in the first two decades of the 20th century, when a series of technological breakthroughs made cigarettes sexier, deadlier and more addictive than ever before. The most critical of these, Proctor writes, was "flue-curing" — a process in which charcoal-heated air is transferred to the tobacco leaves during fermentation. The process, which Proctor says "may well be the deadliest invention in the history of modern manufacturing," suddenly made smoke milder and easy to inhale. Other inventions, including matches, lighters and industrial machines capable of mass-producing cigarettes, further smoothed the cigarette's rise to prominence. While hand-rolling allowed manufacturers to produce one cigarette per minute, the rate of production jumped to about 1,000 per minute by the mid-1920s. By the time the meeting at the Plaza Hotel was assembling, cigarettes had become what Proctor calls the "deadliest artifacts in the history of human civilization."
Though the industry's well-paid in-house scientists continued to toe the company line and deny the cancer connection, and the U.S. Surgeon General wouldn't declare this link for another decade, the tide was now threatening to turn against Big Tobacco and the industry was preparing its counterattack. Proctor called the meeting at the Plaza Hotel "the beginning of the industry's conspiracy to deny, deflect, or distract from the hazard of tobacco."
The solution, as Proctor tells us, was the industry's "Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers" — a position paper that was adopted by participants of the conference and that ran in 448 newspapers. The statement alludes to recent experiments in which mice grew tumors after being painted with tar but argues that "there is no proof" cigarette smoking causes cancer. It also dismisses recent epidemiological studies suggesting a link between smoking and cancer, claiming that statistics "could apply with equal force to any of the many other aspects of modern life."
But even as Big Tobacco questioned the link, it pledged "aid and assistance to research efforts into all phases of tobacco use and health." Leading this effort would be a new group, the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, whose research would be led by "scientists of unimpeachable refute." This was the first in a series of industry groups fronting as scientific organizations. Though they hired leading scientists and contributed generously toward experiments, the work they funded consciously avoided the topic of the smoking/cancer link, as Proctor aptly demonstrates. The goal, he argues, was to distract the public with "red herring science" while continuing to push a product that kills the equivalent of two jumbo jets full of passengers a day.
The industry's mastery of public relations — even before the days of Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man — was among its greatest strengths. Television encouraged smoking with state-of-the-art ads, including "dancing cigarettes" and popular shows that were sponsored by tobacco giants (Philip Morris, for example, sponsored "I Love Lucy."). Proctor notes that cigarettes were the most widely advertised product on TV until 1971, the year Congress banned cigarette ads.
Hollywood and professional sports were also in on the game. Between 1927 and 1951, at least 195 Hollywood stars (among them Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Joan Crawford) endorsed cigarettes. Even as late as 1983, Sylvester Stallone agreed to smoke Brown & Williamson brands (Kool and Bell Air) in five forthcoming movies in exchange for $500,000. Other big names, including Paul Newman, Sean Connery and Clint Eastwood, also did their part, accepting thousands of dollars from the industry in exchange for product placement.
Leading sports figures also benefited handsomely from tobacco sponsorship. Baseball stars Stan Musial and Ted Williams plugged Chesterfields, Proctor writes, while Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle endorsed Camels. Cigarettes were branded in the context of sports as "performance-enhancing drugs that calmed your nerves, eased tension and readied you for the big game."
There were some notable exceptions. Honus Wagner, the legendary Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop, revoked in 1911 his contract with American Tobacco out of fear that circulation of his baseball card "would influence children to purchase tobacco products." As a result, Proctor writes, only a few dozen of his cards were ever distributed. Wagner's honorable stance was, in a sense, rewarded posthumously. His baseball cards are among the most sought-after prizes for collectors. In 2007, one sold for $2.8 million.
The tradition of athletes shilling for Big Tobacco continued well into the second half of the century. Tennis legend Billy Jean King began accepting money from Philip Morris in 1971 and wore "Virginia Slims" colors during her famous "Battle of the Sexes" victory over Bobby Riggs two years later. And in 1994, London's Imperial (which makes Davidoff cigarettes) began sponsoring the Basel International Tennis Tournament in Switzerland, which featured superstar Roger Federer on its promotional materials.
More disturbing than the industry's influence on professional sports, however, is its insidious infiltration of American universities. In the mid-1930s, American Tobacco began partnering with Medical College of Virginia (later renamed Virginia Commonwealth University) to address the cancer "health scares." Before long, some of the college's most prominent faculty members (including successive heads of the college's Department of Pharmacology) were on the industry's payroll, testifying before regulatory committees and downplaying the cancer link.
This was the most obvious but by no means the only example of collusion. American Tobacco, Proctor writes, also developed close relations with Duke University (which is still named after James Buchanan "Buck" Duke, the powerful former president of American Tobacco), University of North Carolina, University of Texas and New York University (NYU). Lorillard struck deals with Ohio State University and NYU, Philip Morris put two Columbia University pharmacologists on its payroll while R.J. Reynolds established a laboratory at the Bowman Gray School of Medicine (part of Wake Forest). Meanwhile, professors from schools as prominent as Harvard, Stanford, Johns Hopkins and UCLA took money from the industry and lent their imprimatur to the industry.
Some of the most poignant sections of Proctor's encyclopedic work are ones in which he unmasks these secret relationships. He's not shy about naming names and outing historians, academics, doctors and politicians who in his view sold out to the industry (including several at his own university). The book also exposes as "fraud" the industry's various attempts to make cigarettes feel safer. Filters, ventilation slits and "light cigarettes" were invented to assuage smokers even though, as Proctor demonstrates, these inventions do nothing to lessen the health impacts of cigarettes.
Proctor's investigative work is comprehensive and devastating, though his tendency to reach for the top shelf occasionally distracts a reader from the impressive scholarship within. The book's title is just one example. Proctor has no qualms about comparing smoking-related deaths to the extermination of European Jews and his one-page prologue justifying his use of "Holocaust" in the title does little to ease a sense of discomfort with the flawed analogy. He acknowledges the "significant difference between the murder of six million Jews at the hands of the Nazis and the suffering of smokers" but justifies his title with an argument that "in both instances, though, we face calamity of epic proportions, with too many willing to turn a blind eye, too many willing to let the horror unfold without intervention." But by this logic, the "Holocaust" label can be applied to anything from hunger in Africa to global warming — issues that are undoubtedly serious but that are also substantially different from the horrors generally associated with the term. Given the copious, detailed and damning evidence Proctor assembles in his book, he does himself a disservice by shrouding his impressive research behind such a loaded title.
And while Proctor's account is exhaustive, at certain moments it also feels exhausting. Is it really critical for us to know, for example, that a 2008 Google search returned 1,950,000 hits for "smoking fetish" and 139,000 for "smoking porn"? (Regardless of the answer, now you know). And his list of sporting events sponsored by cigarette makers between 1960 and 2000 (to cite one of many examples) runs to six pages of fine print — a prime example of Proctor's sterling scholarship but a bit of a drag for those who like to see more "story" in their history.
But at other times, his data charts are just what the doctor ordered, like when he gives us a "selected" list of 29 poisons in cigarettes, a catalogue that includes ammonia, arsenic and radioactive polonium 210. And his account of Big Tobacco's endorsements in the jazz industry greatly benefits a long list of American jazz greats who died from lung cancer, a catalogue that includes Lou Rawls, Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington and Jimmy Dorsey.
The most important service Proctor performs in this compelling volume is to take what many of us suspect and think we know and magnify it. He is aided in this quest by the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, an archive of more than 70 million pages that the tobacco companies had to release as part of their Master Settlement Agreement in 1998. Many of the facts and figures he cites to correct what he calls our "mass blindness" about the tobacco industry come from the industry's own archives.
"Most people know that the industry's behavior had been less than honorable, but how many know that cigarette smoke contains arsenic, cyanide, and radioactive isotopes?" Proctor asks in the prologue. "How many know that 90 percent of the world's licorice ends up in tobacco, or that cigarettes are freebased with ammonia to turn them into a kind of crack nicotine? How many know that only about two-thirds of what goes into a cigarette is actually tobacco, with much of the rest being a witches' brew of added sugars, burn accelerants, freebasing agents, bronchial dilators, and moisteners like glycerin or diethylene glycol, the antifreeze contaminating all those deadly Chinese tubes of toothpaste? How many know about the filth sometimes found in cigarettes — dirt and mold, of course, but also worms, wire and insect excrement?"
A reader doesn't have to agree with all of his solutions, including his impassioned call for abolition of cigarettes, to appreciate his work. And even if the abolition he lobbies for in the short final chapter doesn't materialize, it's heartening to know that through his efforts the industry's long and complex campaign to confuse and deceive the American public can no longer proceed unimpeded.
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at email@example.com.