Tobacco papers: smoke, secrets Companies suppressed their covert research, states' suits disclose

September 28, 1997|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

As chances fade for a quick national tobacco settlement, 38 states continue to construct their best legal case against the industry. Their building blocks are faded papers dug from dusty tobacco company files, evidence that industry researchers were years ahead of the government in understanding that smoking is dangerous and addictive.

The industry documents also show that tobacco lawyers, worried even three decades ago about a bankrupting flood of smokers' lawsuits, kept the research secret and sometimes ordered it destroyed. They insisted that the companies ignore their own findings and stick to the increasingly threadbare stance that cigarettes had never been proved harmful.

Today, even as tobacco lobbyists urge Congress to bless a settlement, tobacco lawyers are fighting in courts around the country to keep the documents secret. But enough has become public in lawsuits to show why cigarette makers insist on the confidentiality of papers written years before man set foot on the moon.

Consider a memo from a chemist at R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in 1962, two years before the U.S. surgeon general's landmark report on smoking and disease.

"Obviously the amount of evidence accumulated to indict cigarette smoke as a health hazard is overwhelming," wrote Alan Rodgman, who had spent years analyzing the witches' brew smokers inhaled. "The evidence challenging such an indictment is scant."

Rodgman questioned the ethics of the company's decision not to publish in-house studies of carcinogens in cigarette smoke. Citing "the Company's obligation to its customers, stockholders and employees," he called on his bosses to authorize wide-ranging research on smoking and health -- and to publish it. Reynolds scientists had urged such steps in six previous reports dating back as far as 1953, he said, and were "intensely concerned about the cigarette smoke-health problems."

But the 24-page memo prompted no shift of strategy, no public push to design a safer cigarette, no plan to acknowledge smoking hazards and pitch the pleasure as worth the risk. Rodgman's appeal was buried in company files, to be unearthed more than three decades later in lawsuits filed on behalf of the 425,000 Americans killed by smoking each year.

In the long, troubled tale of American tobacco, Rodgman's memo represents the road not taken.

The industry long anticipated the legal onslaught that finally brought it to the negotiating table this year and produced a tentative national settlement in June. But President Clinton has called for major changes in the tobacco pact, and congressional leaders say no action is likely until next year, leaving the states free to proceed with their lawsuits.

Mississippi and Florida have already agreed to multibillion-dollar settlements. Texas is set for trial tomorrow and is considered the industry's best hope. Minnesota, whose well-prepared case is scheduled for January, may be its biggest worry. Maryland's case is set for trial in 1999.

"Without the history, as told by the documents, the states' lawsuits would probably have no chance," says Richard A. Daynard, a Northeastern University law professor who heads the Tobacco Products Liability Project. "What the documents show is that this was not an industry benignly satisfying consumer demand. They were covering up what they knew about the dangers, and they were manipulating the contents to make [cigarettes] more addictive."

The documents, also the crux of a 2-year-old federal criminal investigation of fraud and perjury in the industry, suggest that tobacco company researchers in many areas far outpaced government and academic scientists.

The studies, many carried out in industry-funded labs in Britain and Germany to be far from litigious U.S. smokers, were considered so sensitive they were identified with code words: BATFLAKE and MAD HATTER, CONQUEROR and COBBLESTONE.

"Project 'G' will henceforth be known as Project 'VOLUME' for security reasons," says a chronology of past projects prepared by industry lawyers in 1988. In a discussion of a 1957 project, the word "zephyr" was substituted for "cancer," evidently in case the papers fell into enemy hands.

Jack E. Henningfield, a Johns Hopkins University psychopharmacologist who studied nicotine at the National Institute on Drug Abuse for many years, expressed anger after reviewing previously secret nicotine research performed by the industry in the 1960s and '70s.

"It is incredibly frustrating to find out that we could have saved years -- decades in some areas -- of time and effort, if we would have had some of these documents," Henningfield said in a videotaped affidavit last December for Florida's lawsuit.

While many of the industry's nicotine studies were later replicated by government projects, their purposes were exactly opposite, he said.

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