It was a covert fact-finding expedition: In 1964, with American cigarette manufacturers reeling from lawsuit threats and government warnings about the health dangers of smoking, two British tobacco researchers came to this country to investigate how their counterparts were protecting themselves.
They were granted unparalleled access to U.S. tobacco executives and later marveled that their reception “was most friendly” wherever they went. Returning to England, they wrote their impressions, but the findings remained secret for 32 years, long enough for both authors to die.
Tuesday, that report spilled out into the open when a U.S. congressman - who had received it from an anonymous source - turned it over to the Justice Department, saying it provides the “smoking gun” for a federal inquiry into whether the tobacco industry deliberately kept the public in the dark about the risks of smoking.
The 37-page document made public by Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., provides a detailed account of how lawyers for the tobacco industry assumed control of smoking-and-health research in the mid-1960s, concentrating their efforts on ways to fight lawsuits instead of develop safer cigarettes.
While previously released internal tobacco memoranda have made similar allegations, the British analysis goes farther, describing a high-level “policy committee” of attorneys for six tobacco companies who worked in concert.
“This committee is extremely powerful,” the report said. “It determines the high policy of the industry on all smoking and health matters - research and public-relations matters, for example, as well as legal matters, and it reports directly to the presidents. The committee is particularly concerned with possible congressional legislation …”
So dominant were these attorneys, the researchers wrote, that executives of the three smallest tobacco companies - who believed that the lawyers had too much authority - “were neither powerful enough nor sufficiently sure of themselves to say anything about it.”
The analysis also looked at the tobacco executives’ views on the importance of nicotine - a matter that has generated considerable public attention since July 1994, when seven of the United States’ top tobacco executives swore before Congress that nicotine was not addictive.
By contrast, the British researchers said that William Blunt, then president of Liggett & Meyers - now Liggett Group Inc. - “firmly held the view that people smoked because of the nicotine.” On Tuesday, Liggett officials declined comment.
Meanwhile, the authors describe their American counterpart - the Council for Tobacco Research - as a sham organization that was backing research “of little relevance,” despite a directive from Congress to find the harmful properties in tobacco and eliminate them from cigarettes.
In some respects, the document is like a crystal ball, providing an uncanny glimpse into the future. Now, as then, the tobacco industry is facing legal threats. Now, as then, it is facing government regulation. Now, as then, warnings about the health dangers of smoking dominate the news.
Given such a climate of fear, it is not surprising that lawyers would work together, says Michael York, an attorney for Philip Morris USA. York dismissed Meehan’s “smoking-gun” remark as “an act of desperation,” and said there was nothing untoward about the committee of lawyers described in the report.
Meehan, in a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno, said the report revealed something far more sinister: “Perhaps all of the leading members of the tobacco industry in the United States,” he wrote, ” … engaged in a knowing, deliberate and brilliant strategy to lie to the American people and federal government agencies …”
Reno’s office is conducting several grand jury probes into the conduct of the tobacco industry, including one that looks at whether the industry executives lied to Congress about the addictive nature of nicotine, and another that is examining whether the Council for Tobacco Research has fraudulently claimed nonprofit status while defending the industry.
Graham Kelder, an expert in tobacco litigation at Northeastern University in Boston, said the British report bolsters those probes.
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