April 4, 1997 in Nation/World

Industry Debated Tobacco Ethics In 1978 Documents Show Executives Knew Tobacco Was Deadly And Addictive, Yet They Marketed It To Children

Shankar Vedantam Knight-Ridder
 

Secret documents from the Liggett tobacco company reveal that as long as 30 years ago, executives wrestled with the moral question of making cigarettes less harmful at the cost of more widespread addiction to tobacco.

A 1978 document concluded: “The habit can never be safe.”

The memorandums, letters and reports also confirm that some Liggett executives knew then that cigarettes were addictive and deadly and included 16-year-olds in their marketing plans.

The documents are a fraction of the thousands of pages the Liggett Group, makers of Chesterfield cigarettes, turned over as part of its settlement with 22 state attorneys general on March 20.

Most of the documents still are unopened in courtrooms across the country. The other tobacco companies are fighting to keep them under wraps on the grounds that they are classified corporate information. Knight-Ridder obtained 20 documents from legal sources in Arizona and Florida.

The industry’s fears may stem from how juries will react to passages such as this one from a 1963 report: “The cigarette market may be broken down into age brackets as follows: a. 16-21 - the formative years; smoking starts and brand preference is developed.”

The tobacco industry long has sworn that it doesn’t want children to smoke. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is battling the industry in U.S. District Court in Greensboro, N.C., over the right to regulate its advertising, which the agency says induces children to smoke.

A recurring theme in the documents is that Liggett tried hard to develop safer cigarettes. The tobacco industry hemorrhages customers: Government scientists say some 425,000 Americans die every year from tobacco-related disease.

The 1978 memorandum philosophically pondered this question: “Is it morally permissible to develop a safe method for administering a habitforming drug when, in so doing, the number of addicts will increase?”

The memo resolved this issue later: “We may conclude that there is nothing unethical in the concept of a safer cigarette; that the use of artificial means to control mood is a very human characteristic; that we should not seek to expand but cannot dispel the habit; and that our real duty lies in diminishing the adverse consequences.”

It apparently wasn’t the ethical quandaries that hindered Liggett’s quest for a safer cigarette. The chemistry was too difficult, the documents show.

In return for the documents, the attorneys general let Liggett, the smallest of the five major tobacco companies, off the hook in their lawsuits aimed at recovering health costs. Officials believe the documents reflect industry practice. They hope to use them to convict the other four major companies - Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard - of making hundreds of thousands of Americans sick with lung cancer, heart disease and a host of other ailments.

The attorneys general say that the documents will prove the industry conspired to manipulate the level of nicotine in cigarettes to keep smokers addicted, and committed fraud by lying to Congress about smoking’s dangers.

The Liggett documents examined also contradict longtime industry claims that smoking is not addictive and does not lead to disease. In its settlement with the attorneys general, Liggett for the first time conceded those claims were false.

The 1978 Liggett memorandum said: “Smoking is associated, classically, with three sets of disease - pulmonary cancer, chronic bronchitis and emphysema (chronic obstructive airway disease) and cardiovascular disease.” And a July 1970 draft letter from cigarette company research directors referred to their research into “lung cancer, heart disease, chronic respiratory ailments and other diseases.” The letter said that the research “is a defensive posture which, crudely, has not relieved any of the pressure on cigarettes as the causative factor in the smoking and health controversy.”

The 1963 document also explains why so much tobacco advertising is focused on young people.

Smokers between 22 and 25 “can be influenced to switch brands more easily than any other,” the report notes, while those between 36 and 45 are “still susceptible to sales promotion, but traditionally harder to induce to change brands.”

About how smokers get their cigarettes, the report noted, “At age 16-21 there is much bumming of cigarettes; at 22-25 there is buying by the package if unmarried, buying by the carton if married.”


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