“Doubt is our product,” stated a tobacco industry memo from 1969. For half a century, the tobacco industry tried to muddy the link between smoking and cancer. Now, with that effort long since failed, cigarette producers facing dozens of potentially ruinous lawsuits are once again attempting to manufacture doubt.
“The tobacco industry is now trying to win their cases by rewriting history, saying that everyone knew but no one had proof,” said history Professor Robert N. Proctor. “What they’re saying is that everyone always knew it was bad for you. So if you started smoking in 1962 or 1972 and later got lung cancer, you have only yourself to blame.”
Proctor spoke Feb. 18 during a symposium—”The Sociopolitical Manufacturing of Scientific Ignorance”—at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco.
Proctor claims that by the middle of the 1950s there was a scientific consensus that smoking caused lung cancer. But the tobacco industry fought that finding, both in the public eye and within the scientific community. Tobacco companies funded skeptics, started health reassurance campaigns, ran advertisements in medical journals and researched alternate explanations for lung cancer, such as pollution, asbestos and even the keeping of birds. Denying the case against tobacco was “closed,” they called for more research as a tactic to delay regulation.
Drawing from his experiences as an expert witness in tobacco litigation cases, Proctor says that industry lawyers often claim that “government propaganda,” such as warnings from the Surgeon General, was so overwhelming that the risks of smoking were universally known. But they excuse the industry’s own counter-propaganda by arguing that the scientific community was unable to prove a link between smoking and lung cancer until relatively recently. If true, this lack of proof would absolve the tobacco companies of any blame for deaths caused by smoking and any charges of fraud for their campaign against the link between cancer and cigarettes.
“But if they were lying and if people actually believed their lies,” Proctor said, “then the industry can be held liable because they were manufacturing a defective and fraudulent product.”