No more smoke screens

May 12, 1994

It's "what did they know and when did they know it?" time for the tobacco industry in Washington.

That favorite question of congressional investigators is becoming especially painful for tobacco peddlers. Evidence keeps cropping up that major tobacco companies knew at least a decade ago and probably three decades ago how harmful cigarettes were to smokers' health. Yet their chief executive officers and at least one top researcher persist in testifying that they have no reason to believe tobacco is addictive or can cause fatal illnesses. Their credibility has been badly undermined.

No sooner had the chief executives of the seven leading tobacco companies sworn to a congressional subcommittee that they don't believe nicotine is addictive, or that there was persuasive evidence it causes fatal lung and heart diseases, than contradictory evidence emerged from their own files.

First, two former scientists for Philip Morris testified they had conducted experiments in the early '80s that produced strong, though not conclusive, evidence nicotine is as addictive as cocaine. Before they could carry their work further, it was suppressed and their laboratory abruptly shut down.

They thought their work was pioneering. Now it appears that other scientists, working on behalf of Brown & Williamson, had told top executives that nicotine was addictive two decades earlier. They also provided evidence it causes the same fatal LTC cardiovascular ailments cited a short time later in the first U.S. surgeon general's report on the hazards of smoking. That report was denounced by the tobacco industry as unsound science.

Ironically, both the Philip Morris and Brown & Williamson research arose from attempts to design a "safe" cigarette -- one that did not have the harmful effects the industry kept insisting did not exist. That work was abandoned, too.

It's time for the industry to jettison the irresponsible word games it is playing by such tactics as hiding behind the narrowest textbook definition of addiction. If a cigarette can be produced that gives smokers similar satisfaction without addicting them or causing them (or innocent bystanders) fatal ailments, let the industry produce it. Otherwise there seems to be no alternative to the federal government's regulating cigarettes like other addictive drugs. Obstinate, unconvincing denials by the tobacco industry just won't do any longer.

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