Shadow of a doubt: how they fooled us about a killer habit

Below, my article, as it appears in today’s Irish Times. It’s as much about the ‘Tobacco Strategy’ as smoking. There are lessons that may be useful in facing down the climate deniers. At the very least, it’s good to know their playbook…


Fifty years ago this week the UK Royal College of Physicians published its landmark report entitled ‘Smoking and Health’. It stated conclusively the cigarette smoking was a leading cause of lung cancer and bronchitis, as well as contributing to heart disease. Public reaction to this bombshell was muted. Some 70 per cent of men were smokers at the time, and the habit was widely socially acceptable.

Few wanted to hear that an enjoyable habit could also be so dangerous. Coming to accept the uncomfortable new facts about smoking would mean for individuals, having to decide if it was really worth the risk. At a societal level, a product that was killing as many as one in two of its customers would at the very least have to be subject to strict regulation.

Then again, in 1962, your family doctor quite probably smoked in the surgery, while his female patients may have continued smoking throughout their pregnancies. That’s how widely accepted and poorly understood the consequences of tobacco consumption were just half a century ago.

The toll, for such a seemingly minor vice, has been astonishing. In the 20th century, around 100 million people died prematurely as a direct result of smoking, with millions more suffering non-fatal illnesses. That’s more than the total number killed in both world wars. The World Health Organisation describes tobacco use as “the leading cause of preventable death in the world”. It is a risk factor in six of the eight leading causes of death globally.

In Ireland, smoking kills up to 7,000 people annually, that’s 35 times more than our total road fatalities. Despite the risks, at least one in four Irish adults still chooses to smoke. Tobacco is also a class issue in Ireland; prevalence among lower socio-economic groups is almost double that of professionals. Some 56 per cent of poorer women under 30 are now smokers.

Medical evidence linking smoking to lung cancer first came to light in Germany in the 1930s. Ironically, the world’s first anti-smoking campaign was run by the Nazi government, while Hitler forbade all smoking in his presence. The tarnished reputation of German scientists meant that little wider notice was taken of these findings.

Then, two decades later, US researchers established a direct link between smoking and cancers in 1953. This breakthrough study provoked a firestorm of media coverage. The tobacco industry was plunged into crisis. Marketing a popular, lucrative product that was suddenly found to be inadvertently causing the deaths of millions of your customers is a nightmare scenario for any business.

The rapid accumulation of hundreds more scientific studies throughout the 1950s confirming the dangers inherent in tobacco products left the industry with a clear choice: either accept the science and agree to more regulation and taxes – or wage war on the science itself. Fatefully, they chose to fight.

In what decades later was described by the federal courts as one of the largest conspiracies to commit fraud ever perpetrated in the US, tobacco industry chiefs called in their PR experts and together they devised a plan to undermine the scientific evidence, befuddle the media and lead the public to mistakenly believe that the “science wasn’t settled”. To succeed, they had to create the impression that many scientists disagreed that cigarette smoking was in fact dangerous.

The blueprint for this widescale deception became known as the ‘Tobacco Strategy’. It was brilliantly successful in delaying regulation of tobacco products because it was at heart simple. The PR strategists recognised that the public has a poor understanding about how scientific or medical understanding is developed and advanced, and crucially, so does the lay media.

“Doubt is our product”, wrote an industry memo from 1969, “since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of facts’ that exists in the public mind”. If tobacco causes lung cancer, why are some smokers unaffected? Why do more men than women get cancer? Why are lung cancer levels higher in some cities than others if it’s really tobacco to blame?

The genius of this tactic is that even though the industry knew there were legitimate explanations for all these anomalies, simply ‘asking the questions’ inferred that these were real scientific controversies. The media was drawn into this bogus debate and began to frame its function as ‘refereeing’ between scientists and industry spokesmen in the newly minted “controversy” about whether or not tobacco causes cancer. The New York Times until 1979 had a formal editorial policy of including tobacco industry comment in every article on tobacco and health.

The tobacco industry also channelled enormous sums of money into biomedical research in an attempt to develop explanations – other than tobacco – for a range of medical conditions. This also allowed the industry to directly fund hundreds of researchers, many of whom would later testify as pro-industry expert witnesses in legal actions.

In the book, ‘Merchants of Doubt’, science historian Prof Naomi Oreskes uncovers how a handful of once-reputable scientists, bankrolled by industry funding and channelled through libertarian ‘think tanks’ and phoney grassroots (astroturf) movements have applied the ‘Tobacco Strategy’ blueprint repeatedly to argue against health and environmental regulations on issues from mercury to acid rain, ozone depletion and, most ominously, global warming.

Conservative Yale economist William Nordhaus recently pointed out that while tobacco sales in the US today are under $100 billion, its energy sector is a trillion dollar business. Since addressing global warming would hit fossil-based businesses, he warned of the need for “extreme vigilance to prevent pollution of the scientific process by the merchants of doubt”.

Evidence of this contamination emerged with the recent leaking of internal documents from the Heartland Institute, a libertarian group that has long fought regulations on second-hand tobacco smoke on the false grounds that it is not harmful. The same group is now, with energy industry funding, seeking to corrupt the teaching of basic science to US schoolchildren as part of its larger war on climate science.

The president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) said recently she was “scared to death” by the success anti-science zealots. “We are sliding back into a dark era”, was Nina Fedoroff’s worrying conclusion. The lessons of the ‘Tobacco Strategy’ brings to mind the old proverb: fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator, and tweets @think_or_swim and is online at

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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14 Responses to Shadow of a doubt: how they fooled us about a killer habit

  1. Lucy Cooke says:

    Brings to mind Fracking
    all the same denials, deflections and lies.
    We know it is dangerous – new stuff coming out from USA and Canada every day.
    When is the Government going to ban fracking so we can all get on with our lives


  2. Fred says:

    Good article; and the fracking comparison is spot on.    Irish ex-pat fracking apologist Phelim McAleer is bringing out a pro-fracking propaganda film.  This is being supported by the “Heritage Foundation”.  Nobel winning economist Paul Krugman sums up The Heritage Foundation, a pro-Bush “think tank” funded by the oil industry: “Whenever you encounter “research” from the Heritage Foundation, youalways have to bear in mind that Heritage isn’t really a think tank; it’s a propaganda shop. Everything it says is automatically suspect.”

    But McAleer is being interviewed in serious newspapers as if he was a serious commentator, instead of what he is, a paid stooge.  

    The frackers are also crowing about a report by the Energy Institute at the University of Texas in Austin which was broadly in favour of fracking, despite grudgingly admitting that pollution does follow fracking.Invariably, this report is described as being “independent” and “balanced”.

    In reality:
    -                 The “independent” Energy Institute is hopelessly biased.  Its website is unashamedly pro-fracking – it states on its front page that “The discovery of … shale gas … has been a major positive development for the energy picture of the US and the world”.
    -       The current head of the “independent” Institute, Ray Orbach, was nominated by none other than well-known oil-industry supporter, President Bush, to serve as the first Under Secretary for Science atthe U.S. Department of Energy.
    -       The “independent” author of the “independent” report, Charles “Chip” Groat, has a material conflict of interest – he earns hundreds of thousands of dollars from his current position as a director on anoil and gas exploration company, PXP Oil & Gas.

    Some “independence”.  You won’t hear as much chat about the 2011 Tyndall Report from Manchester University (ignored by the British government) which concluded, on page 74 of that Report, that “there isa clear risk of contamination from shale gas extraction” and that “the dismissal of any risk as insignificant is even harder to justify given the documented examples that have occurred in the US.”

    John’s summary of these self-interested liars’ manipulation techniques – what Chomsky referred to as “manufactured consent” – is timely.  It’s happening again with fracking, and our “journalists” and public “representatives” are falling for it, every time.

  3. Excellent article John. Read it in the Journal. Fair play on all the exposure – hopefully this year people will wake up!

  4. Denis says:

    I find the moral indignation to fracking to be disingenuous, when those who protest about the procedure, are using the products of the oil industry to live and want to return to what they consider to be normal lives without the blight of fracking.
    If we really care about the environment, we should eshew with equal moral indignation, all factory produced products, all liquid transport fuels, all electricity, and most of the food we eat as well.

  5. Econroy says:

    My observation on your article is that the issue of climate change takes up a very small part of it – it is only introduced at the very end to show the current treatment of it by deniers: similar to smoking. Given your previous issues with the Irish Times, would the article have been published if climate change was more prominent? It echoes my frustrations with the current media avoidance of climate change – it is getting very little publicity. If it was a discourse on smoking, then I accept that. Its just that given your passion about climate change, I was surprised that you mentioned it only at the end: but maybe you were leading up to this all along!

  6. John Gibbons says:

    Cheers Theresa, am happy to continue chip, chip chipping away when and where I can, in order to give this issue enough oxygen to at least keep it alive long enough for better known and more influential commentators and analysts to maybe come on board and take it on. That will, I suspect, happen only after weather events start going really seriously haywire…

  7. John Gibbons says:

    Interesting points Eric. Would the IT have chosen to publish this piece if framed mainly as a climate change article? Can’t say for sure, but my hunch is: probably not. On the other hand, the Tobacco Strategy is accessible to an audience that may not be very well tuned to climate issues (i.e. 98% of newspaper readers), and this offers a way of explaining how the systematic corruption of science is a old problem. Since most people fully accept that tobacco is dangerous, they may be interested to know that this Tobacco Strategy is in fact a playbook for all manner of denialism. If you ‘get’ the tobacco-science swindle, you’re far more likely to have an heightened index of suspicion in future when you hear similar arguments being made to dispute climate science. 

    In summary, a detour from my usual climate-heavy offerings? Yes, but a useful one, I would argue. Feedback, both directly and via Twitter, tends to concur.

  8. John Gibbons says:

    As soon as I hear ‘Phelim McAleer’ I reach for the sick-bag. An ex-Murdoch hack, he has had a good grounding in anti-environmental propaganda. That he is now being patrolled by the lying liars at the Heartland Institute is about right. Fracking is highly profitable, so anything (eg. efforts at regulation or concerns over water table contamination) that threatens this profit stream needs to be attacked and ridiculed. 

    The fact that the (Bush-dominated) EPA completely exempted fracking from regulation in the mid 2000s (assuming my facts are correct here?) underlines the fact that they weren’t going to allow bad news about the environmental wreckage to get in the way of ‘good news’, ie. billions more for the energy corporations, the ones who fund US politics and finance anti-science think tanks or ‘sceptic tanks’, as I prefer to call them, given the sewage they produce.

  9. John Gibbons says:

    Denis, I know where you’re coming from here, but it’s a little harsh to suggest that if you accept any aspect of our fossil-fuelled civilization, you have to accept everything, without exception or discrimination. I do think that some technologies are so egregiously dangerous – i.e. additional risks on top of their inevitable emissions – that we should at least fight to have them curtailed while also fighting Nimbyism on issues where the science is actually pretty favourable – nuclear energy and GMOs are two cases in point, as Paul Nurse, president of the UK Royal Society pointed out recently. 

  10. denisk says:

    Harsh, yes John, but I am really only trying  to point out that what we now consider to be “normal” is anything but, and we have reached such a degree of dependance on fossil fuel that we have become almost completely blind to the consequences of our way of life.
    We travel internationally to seek work in other countries—–all that is based on the exploitation of natural resources, the end use of which will only lead to yet more increases in our output of Co2.
    Most jobs are Co2 producers—–it would probably be much more environmentally friendly to be on the dole, and do some voluntary work of a social or agricultural nature in our own country.
    We are going to have to rethink our whole way of life and the rationale we apply to being alive on this planet, and it would be better to start on this while we still have some relatively cheap energy available to build a sustainable and self sustaining infrastructure.
    We need to be making these plans now, and educate the next generation to enable them to be able to have happy and meaningful lives in our own country in the future.
    Got a bit away from your article here—-it was excellent and frightningly informative about the new religion of Anti Science.
    To end——– that shale gas will be fracked sooner or later, but we better make sure that it is fracked in the least damaging way possible, and that the resultant gas is used in the most responsible way possible ie not just to prop up our consumer society, but to make a lasting contribution to our New Begining.

  11. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    Great article, John.


    Just to change topic here a bit: climate
    scientists have frequently said that carbon dioxide concentrations in the
    world’s atmosphere must begin falling by 2015 or climate change will pass some
    tipping point and become irreversible and runaway. But it looks like we won’t make
    it: the carbon dioxide concentrations are continuing to rise, year on year, even
    with the recession, and with slow progress on switching from fossil fuels to
    renewables, and with China and India’s continued growth. This means that, if
    the world is going to do anything to save itself from total disaster, it will
    have to start taking carbon dioxide out of the air.


    The good news is that it is actually
    possible to do this, though it would have to be done on a massive scale to make
    any difference. I don’t have recent data, but back in 2010 it was reported that
    researchers in North America had perfected a ‘carbon tree’ type of device that
    might do the trick, if deployed in sufficient quantities. A carbon ‘tree’ would
    be perhaps as high as a three-storey building, and if 60 million of these
    devices were constructed around the world they would mop up enough carbon
    dioxide not only to bring us back to safe levels but even make possible a
    return to pre-industrial levels. This would reduce the greenhouse effect to
    such an extent that global temperatures would fall back to healthy levels. And
    all this could be done while still burning coal, oil and gas, though I’m not
    advocating that we continue using these. I’m not sure how many carbon trees Ireland
    would have to agree to build as part of such a global project, but I’m guessing
    50,000 or more. We managed to build far more houses than that during the boom, so
    it would be possible.

  12. Fred says:

    “we better make sure that it is fracked in the least damaging way possible”Ho ho … you’ve been conned mate – that’s an impossibility based on an absurdity; but it’s how the debate is being led and how the consent is being manufactured.  Two points here:1.       Even in a wasteful society, fracking is the equivalent of eating the other passengers on a shipwreck.  2.       Even in a wasteful society, fracking makes little economic sense.FRACKING – THIS IS A FALSE DEBATE – THERE IS NO “SAFE WAY” TO DO IT: You reckon fracking is OK, “provided we do it right”.  That’s exactly the line from the recent Texas Univ propaganda – much touted in Irish media as an “independent” report, but which was written by an old bloke “Charles Chip Groat” who pulls in c half a million dollars a year from his role on a oil and facking company(“!).  Some independence; but their line is no longer brazenly to deny pollution outright, which they did initially – rather to say that ‘yes there is a bit of pollution, but we can deal with it and you can trust us to do the right thing etc”.  Shale fracking is a toxic business; and the dirtiness of their underground bombing methods typically are presaged by the dirty nature of their propaganda.  US fracking companies have been revealed routinely to use former military psychological operations, or “psy ops” specialists, to deal with ordinary local people inside frack zones, whom they describe as “insurgents” (CNBC, Nov 2011).It is not possible to frack in a non-damaging way.  Moorman’s “no chemicals” promise is mendacious and technically absurd.   Chemical-free racking has never been done before.  Mr Moorman originally said they’d “be sending down truckloads of stuff”.  Just as he originally said there’d be “3000 jobs”, now reduced to “maybe 600”.   Further, Moorman’s little company would not be doing any actual fracking – it’s a two-bit operation with a limited track record and their end-game is being acquired by a large player – on whom Moorman’s opportunistic promises will not be binding.  Moorman’s last company, Southwestern Energy, currently is embroiled in a multi-million dollar fracking pollution court case in Pennsylvania.  Fracking apologists such as Duke downplay the chemicals aspects and stress the water / chemicals ratio.  A more accurate way to describe “fracking” would be to call it “underground dirty bombing” – that’s literally what they’re doing.  The volume of fluid in a hydrofrack can exceed three million gallons, or almost 24 million pounds of fluid, about the same weight as 7,500 family cars.  The fracking fluid contains chemicals that would be illegal to use in warfare under the rules of the Geneva Convention; and even miniscule amounts are toxic, both in water and in air.  Fracking apologists also tend to omit that the back-flush fluid can be highly saline and contain naturally occurring radioactive isotopes. Cabot Oil, a Texas company with operations in the Eagle Ford Shale, recently agreed to pay $4.1 million to Pennsylvania residents whose water wells were contaminated.   70% of residents surveyed in the North Texas town of Dish complain of breathing difficulties, and formaldehyde levels at a Titan Engineering site in North Texas were recorded at levels known to cause breathing problems, levels one investigator characterised as “astoundingly high.”2. Even if it was possible to frack in a non-damaging way, that wouldn’t happen either.  The EPA can’t even manage water quality as it is.  FRACKING IS NOT NECESSARY (UNLESS YOU THINK MAKING MOORMAN RICH IS NECESSARY) I have no issue with conventional oil or gas drilling.  The risks can be managed.  A hydrofrack is by contrast effectively a large underground dirty bomb, using material banned in warfare under the Geneva Convention.  Are we off our rockers here even to be considering this rubbish?  The recent oil find off Cork and the probability of significant conventional oil and gas finds off the West coast are what we should be focussing on.  The Irish govt should set up an Irish Statoil to exploit these areas properly.  And Irish farming (premium food to China), Irish pharmaceuticals, Irish renewables and Irish IT have never looked better. Future generations will probably see wars fought over clean water – the very resource that Duke suggests we deplete (do you have any ideas of the effect of fracking even on water supplies – and who’ll pay for it?), endanger or destroy forever to add a few millions to Richard Moorman’s bank account.  Together with tourism (which will also be hit by turning the best parts of our countryside into a polluted Mad Max zone), those are the long-term prosperity areas for Ireland.  By contrast, fracking is a get-rich-quick stunt for a few foreign chancers; a last chance saloon escapade that despoils a country for the many for the over-remuneration of an undeserving absentee few.One of these frackers or their cynical and selfish cheerleaders will be living inside a frack zone any time soon.  Until such time as they cares to subject his family to the kind of long-term disruptive misery that he currently wishes to visit upon the culchies of Ireland, I’d suggest we retain a little scepticism about the motives and ethics of frackers and their local stooges.

  13. denis says:

    Thank you for the info on fracking Fred—–I hope that by the time they go for that gas [ and they will ], the technology has improved.
    Otherwise, I`m with you for a total ban, however I wouldn`t hold my breath on that one.

  14. John Mashey says:

    Good comments.  In US, most of the th think tanks that do climate anti-science larened the dobut trade from helping tobacco companies in the 1990s.
    See Fake science, fakexperts, funny finances, free of tax,  p.,9: all marked with red T have tobacco involvement, and you can see some of the payments on p.39, followed by accounts of the efforts put forth.  Heartland’s Joseph Bast defended “Joe Camel” and then begged for more money.

    Naomi & Erik were on the right track with the tobacco connection in MoD, but the tobacco connection turns out to have been far more pervasive than they realized.

    I also recommenda book by Robert Proctor, a terrific historian and expert on tobacco history in particular.
    See Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition.  I’ve done a review of what may be the definitive book.  I thought I kenw this truf moderately well, but I learned a lot.
    I repeat just one of many horribly-fascinating quotes (p.114), from
    Bob Herbert’s interview with David Goerlitz, the “Winston Man.”
    then asked whether any of the company’s executives smoke and got this
    answer: “Are you kidding? We reserve that right for the poor, the young,
    the black and the stupid.”

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