`Tobacco Wars' follows the money

Review: Learning Channel, BBC look at why cigarettes, despite being potentially fatal, are sold widely and with little regulation.

October 21, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Given the case as put forth in "Tobacco Wars," it's amazing this country's jails aren't teeming with tobacco company executives. But even if they aren't, the show suggests, the road to hell will be.

A devastating, one-sided indictment of the tobacco industry, "Tobacco Wars" posits that the only reason people continue to smoke is the underhanded tactics it says are used by cigarette manufacturers.

Of course, that's not exactly true. Some people smoke because it calms their nerves (which is one of the reasons early cigarettes were so popular during World War I). Others smoke because it seems like a lesser vice than some of the other habits they could pick up. And still others smoke precisely because everyone tells them not to.

But "Tobacco Wars," a three-part co-production of the BBC and The Learning Channel (which explains why the series pays equal attention to Brits and Americans, to the exclusion of just about everyone else), makes no pretense about being balanced. What it does is try to figure out how something that is so clearly a health hazard remains largely unregulated and easily available.

The answer, according to the series, is basic economics: tobacco makes a lot of money for a lot of people, and those people are willing to do just about anything to keep the cash flow going. Over the years, that has grown from flashy gimmicks and deceptive advertising to suppressed scientific studies and even perjury.

Sometimes, the industry's tactics seem ludicrous, as when one executive suggests that government attempts to regulate tobacco will lead to government regulation of such other pleasurable activities as sex. But other tactics over the years have been far more clandestine -- and effective.

Tonight's Part 1, "Lighting Up," looks at the origins of both cigarettes -- a late-19th century invention that unwittingly made all of tobacco's dangerous properties even worse -- and smoking as a billion-dollar mega-industry.

It introduces some of the early major players, including Buck Duke, the tobacco mogul whose ham-fisted attempts to monopolize the tobacco industry led to bloodshed; heart surgeon Michael DeBakey, who before World War II became one of the first researchers to equate smoking with lung cancer, a rare disease until cigarettes made the scene; and marketer Edward Bernays, who had the bright idea of equating equal rights for women with cigarette smoking. If men frowned on women smoking cigarettes, Bernays' ad campaigns suggested, what better way to show equality than by lighting up?

The program follows cigarettes through World War II. (Britain, it is noted, sent more money to the United States for tobacco during the war than for tanks, ships and planes combined.) It describes a secret Dec. 15, 1953, meeting among tobacco executives worried over the negative publicity becoming attached to cigarettes. And it ends with the 1964 surgeon general's report, as Luther Terry unequivocally linked smoking and cancer.

Part 2, "Smokescreen," details the early efforts by Big Tobacco to cloud the issue and cast doubt over the public health repercussions of its product. Former tobacco company executives, researchers and lawyers talk about how they were ordered to suppress research that suggested their product was killing people. And the story of how Liggett and Myers abandoned efforts to develop a safer cigarette, just when they were on the verge of a breakthrough, is related in sobering detail.

It also suggests tobacco companies were more than happy to take their advertising off television, since that one conciliatory gesture made it easier for them to rebuff further attempts at government control; one regulator ruefully refers to the industry "giving an inch to gain a decade."

Part 3, "Smoked Out," suggests that even though Big Tobacco has suffered a few legal setbacks of late, including a huge settlement with several states seeking monetary compensation, the war is far from over. Cigarettes are still being churned out at record rates, and new markets in developing countries continue to expand.

"I hate them with a perfect hate," one anti-smoking advocate says of the tobacco company operatives, pretty much summing up the tone of "Tobacco Wars." And by the end of the three hours, even if you don't agree, you'll understand why.

`Tobacco Wars'

When: Part 1 tonight, 9 p.m.-10 p.m., repeats midnight-1 a.m. Part 2 tonight, 10 p.m.-11 p.m., repeats 1 a.m.-2 a.m. Part 3, tomorrow, 9 p.m.-10 p.m., repeats midnight-1 a.m.

Where: The Learning Channel

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