Big Tobacco’s Poisonous Legacy

Lung cancer is not the only legacy of Big Tobacco, and arguably not even the worst.

In the years when tobacco companies were fighting emerging medical evidence of the links between smoking and deleterious health consequences, including cancer, they developed a diabolically effective strategy; rather than arguing that the science was wrong, they claimed it was inconclusive, that no one really knew whether cigarettes were the cause of people’s illnesses. The research was inconclusive.

That tactic worked for a long time, and as Senator Sheldon Whitehouse recently wrote, it has been the playbook for efforts by fossil fuel interests to delegitimize scientific consensus about climate change. In an essay for Inside Higher Ed,  Whitehouse called upon universities to confront the tactic.

The threat is simple. The fossil fuel industry has adopted and powered up infrastructure and methods originally built by the tobacco industry and others to attack and deny science. That effort has coalesced into a large, adaptive and well-camouflaged apparatus that aspires to mimic and rival legitimate science. The science that universities support now has an unprecedented and unprincipled new adversary…

The science-denial machinery is an industrial-strength adversary, and it has big advantages over real science. First, it does not need to win its disputes with real science; it just needs to create a public illusion of a dispute. Then industry’s political forces can be put into play to stop any efforts to address whatever problem science had disclosed, since now it is “disputed science.” Hence the infamous phrase from the tobacco-era science denial operation — “Doubt is our product.”

Doubt is aided and abetted by the absence of universally trusted news sources (Where have you gone, Walter Cronkite? A nation turns its weary eyes to you…), increasingly sophisticated propaganda purveyors, and the very human tendency to engage in confirmation bias.

As Whitehouse says, the fossil-fuel apologists and climate-change deniers don’t waste their time in peer-reviewed forums. Instead, they go directly to Fox News and talk radio, to committee hearings and editorial pages. “Their work is, at its heart, PR dressed up as science but not actual science. So they go directly to their audience — and the more uninformed the audience, the better.”

Our universities and other organizations engaged in the enterprise of science struggle for funding. Not so for the science-denial forces. You may think maintaining this complex science-denial apparatus sounds like a lot of effort. So consider the stakes for the fossil fuel industry. The International Monetary Fund — made up of smart people, with no apparent conflict of interest — has calculated the subsidy fossil fuels receive in the United States to be $700 billion annually. That subsidy is mostly what economists call “externalities” — costs the public has to bear from the product’s harm that should be, under market theory, in the price of the product. These $700-billion-per-year stakes mean that the funding available to the science-denial enterprise is virtually unlimited… Make no mistake: in every dispute that this denial machinery manufactures with real science, it is determined to see real science fail. That is its purpose.

As Whitehouse points out, given the strong connections between the incoming Trump Administration and the fossil fuel industry, we can no longer depend on government to be an honest broker and a defender of legitimate science. Hence his plea to universities and other scientific organizations — to join together and step up a common defense.

Sometimes, it all seems like a bad dream…..


  1. And the current crop of dissemblers use the same public relations firms the tobacco industry used. Prostitutes are prostitutes, no matter what services they offer.

  2. There are so many issues causing health hazards which need to be added to tobacco (in all forms) and fossil fuels which big business refuses to control its pollution due to costs which would come from their profits…unless Trump can tax US to pay for protecting our lives. I think the tobacco health hazard battle raged for years till this government could find a replacement for the loss of tax on tobacco products. I was a smoker for 45 years, knew most of the time that is was not healthy but it didn’t seem to be a major issue at the time. Lucy and Ricky smoked; so did Sheriff Andy Taylor in Mayberry, USA.

    We also need to add to that list of health hazards Big Pharma control allowing life-saving EpiPen costs to rise to approximately $400 for a two-pack. And the life-saving drug Harvoni which actually cures Hepatitis C almost 100%; at the cost of $1,152.58 PER PILL. These issues do not alleviate the fossil fuel hazards as it takes fossil fuel to produce the medications produced by Big Pharma who overcharges for these products and refuses to use any of their profits to clean up the pollution caused by fossil fuels. Round and round it goes!

    The climate deniers and creationists vs. science and evolution overlook the undisputed facts that science and evolution brought about the fossil fuel (and tobacco) usage and manufacturing industries which also produce the environmental problems caused by their usage. When will their creationism step in to protect us from ourselves?

    And all this nation has to “turn our weary eyes to” is the incoming Trump/Pence/Ryan administration with it’s full Congressional climate, science, education deniers in the form of White Nationalists supporting Trump’s hope for a “nuclear arms war” to create more nuclear arms production sites and filling their personal coffers. Let the games begin!

  3. What JoAnn said, including the smoking :: with one difference. TrumpPence and RyanMcConnell are getting me about ready to take it up again. ;-(

  4. I’d ask Whitehouse, “Which universities would he like to step forward?”

    Once again, the culprit here is Neoliberalism. When the financial spigots are turned off at the top, it allows the privatization of public assets to begin. First we start with “public-private” partnerships, and then we formally invite the Billionaires to gobble up public assets in fire sales all across the country.

    Our beloved Barrack Obama, who sat eight years at the head of the table, allowed American citizens to bankroll the detoxification of tainted assets on Wall Street made from betting on failing mortgages. They committed wholesale fraud, but not one banker went to jail. Not a single banker.

    The soul of everything democratic we held dear in this country is for sale, including our university system. For Gods sake, the Koch’s wanted to name the school of law at George Mason after Antonin Scalia, for his gift of Citizens United.

    Ball State booted out their president who was a scientist – the board is comprised of corporatists, appointed by Mike Pence, who have sold out to the Koch brothers. I knew when Dr. Ferguson made a speech in Atlanta against climate change, he was in trouble. Once Ferguson was ousted and gagged, Ball State accepted a $3.25 million gift from the Koch’s and Papa John to build an “entrepreneurial center” to teach “free market” principles.

    Sorry professors, but you kept your mouth shut while this was going on. You didn’t want to rock the boat. You kept hoping journalism would save you, but it was privatized and sold off in the 1970’s. Now, you’re for sell. Public dollars going to fund universities keep shrinking, so private dollars are sought. You can only raise tuition so high before it’s unaffordable.

    You didn’t see it coming?

    Capitalism with neoliberal principles creates a giant vacuum, but first you have to turn off financing the public sector and allow it to dry out, or decay a bit, then the Billionaires come with the loot they made off “trickle down” economics and suck up all that remains.

  5. The most important point Sheila makes here is about the loss of Walter Cronkite; or in other words the loss of a trusted source of information that everyone knew was not tilted toward any political view. Since the introduction of talk-for-profit media sources such as the cable news channels, talk radio, political web sites, YouTube channels, etc., accuracy of information and credible sources has been thrown out the window. It was easy for the American people to get disgusted with a senseless Vietnam war when Walter Cronkite showed us how horrible it was every night with out political bias; it could not be denied -there is was every evening on all three television news programs. Now we can wrap ourselves in what ever form of news and information makes us feel better and listen to people who get paid to promote the ideology we are comfortable with.

    We have one of the most clever of information manipulators that will be in the White House come January, and it is not the Orange One, but Pence. Years ago while volunteering on the Phil Sharp campaign for the 6th Congressional District when he narrowly defeated Pence, we were aware of the absolutely bat-shit crazy stuff Pence was writing, saying and putting out on the internet. While most of us laughed it off, Sharp warned us of the cleverness of his method of delivery and how dangerous it could be. Remember the TrumpPence just made a “deal” with a media company to promote the “good news” about their term in office.

    I wish we still had Walter Cronkite.

  6. Sheila rightly casts universities as adversaries of those who would kill the rest of us with tobacco, climate change etc., but what happens when the right is in control of the universities as legislatures reduce appropriations and the Kochs and others march in with big checks to fill the financial vacuum thus created? On every hand there is indisputable evidence that we are on the verge on total corporate control (if not already) – my greatest fear – and to make things worse, money given by the oligarchs to educational institutions is deductible, which means that you and I are helping finance the right’s ventures by having to make up what they are not paying into our treasury, thus helping to finance our own democracy’s demise. The right’s cry for lower taxes has two prongs: lower taxes per se as a cost of doing business and taking away government’s ability to fund education and other such services so they are softened up for corporate takeover with deductible funding of starved educational and other institutions. Next on the privatization agenda: Trump’s trillion-dollar infrastructure repair and renewal with Wall Street funding and the continuing delivery of our transportation to private enterprise for a song. Can you spell tolls?

  7. What Todd and Gerald said! Our research universities have one goal–to maintain their research prestige. If that means being beholden to corporate/political interests for funding, they will follow that path. And, not surprisingly, the prestige race will become even more insidious because it will be impossible prevent whatever science is done from being tainted by the ideology and economic interests of the funding sources.

  8. Pat, I fear you are giving prostitutes a bad name by associating them with those who are selling us out.

    I am not a scientist, but I worked with scientists for many years. The start of that sentence I hear mostly from the right wing. “I’m not a scientist, but….” In their case, that translates to, “I don’t read, I only collect money.” Money doesn’t come from the science side. It is also difficult to plow through scientific publications, so it’s easy to say that the science is disputed. Very few people will look at the the actual science to see that it is NOT in dispute.

    The task with have is to convince those who don’t want to be convinced that we are, indeed in crisis.

  9. Let’s also remain aware of their ability to pay scientists to confirm their denial of harm. Most notably, this goes on in the pharmaceutical and agricultural chemicals industries. However, any wealthy corporation can and does find scientists who are willing to sell their souls to lie for money.

  10. The demonization tactics of the right are being used in many states (especially Indiana, home of Pence, the dominionist) to go after public education at the K-12 level (replaced with vouchers and charters to enrich the private sector, promote segregation and support religious institutions with tax money), as well as public health (IBM taking over welfare management services), infrastructure (Indiana Toll Road sold to a now failed group), publicly owned natural resources (forest harvesting at fire sale prices, no pun intended).
    They are doing the same with the ACA, completely ignoring those millions who have insurance coverage for the first time, they continue to talk about how the big insurers are bailing on the program and how inefficient/costly it is all the while pedaling the lie to the uninformed who are eligible and could be helped but believe that the program is somehow an evil plot by President Obama (the Muslim who was not born in the U.S. and won’t show his college transcripts and is secretly supporting ISIS) to destroy the country.
    It would be laughable if it were not reality for so many willfully ignorant and purposely misinformed who don’t seem to be able to think for themselves, self-sorted to protect themselves from the “elites”.
    Being an “elite” nowadays means that you actually are a skeptic of the shills and the fake news that is distorted and sold in the glittery package of “see how dumb and inferior they think you are”. Count this old white woman without a four year degree in anything, but a willingness to dig deep on the misinformation the oligarchs are dishing, as an “elite”. I wear the label proudly because I am willing to fight for our Constitution and the rights it has confirmed for everyone, not just those with the most money.
    It is not only the scientists who are being demonized and denigrated, but the teachers, regulators and citizens who recognize the manipulation for what it is, a giant scam. There are few voices being heard abroad the land for now, but the majority who voted were not conned by Trumpence and hopefully will continue to fight the propaganda coming from the Kochtopus and company.

  11. The Tap Root is Profit at any cost. Profit is happy to use Neo-Liberalism, Crony-Capitalism, Corporatism to achieve it’s goals of profit unencumbered by rules or regulations. The 1% can always find useful human tools to provide a smokescreen for their activities.

    I see the Trumpet and Pence as useful tools. Both are intellectually vacant. Their purpose is to be a smoke screen for what will be the continued looting of America. Pence exists to keep the Bible Thumpers on board.

    I read Erin Brockovich on face book. It is amazing how many cities and towns are having clean water problems, broken pipelines and earthquakes because of fracking. Other than a very high profile case like Flint, Michigan the McMega-Media ignores these pollution stories. Flint, Michigan which received some publicity has now receded from Corporate Media’s memory.

  12. JD; excellent rundown on Indiana’s current condition. The motto, “Honest To Goodness, Indiana” needs to be changed to, “WTF, Indiana”. Didn’t it used to be, “Ain’t God Good To Indiana”, or was that just something some misguided visitor stated?

    Nationally; I am afraid to mention in this, or any other public forum, what my fears are regarding Trump/Pence/Ryan sources of new taxable income might be. Will only state that I hope there are federal and state laws to prevent the taxation I fear. We can look for no improvement regarding health care, education, cleaning up pollution or protection of voter registration and/or rights here. The LGBTQ supporters have touted federal protection for marriage equality; completely forgetting the plans Pence has for denying them many other civil and human rights using his RFRA as a basis for federal law. Tobacco, smoking hazards and fossil fuel industry concerns pale when compared to what all we face losing under the new administration.

  13. The saddest part is the profound loneliness many of us now feel, and that Americans will increasingly feel when the primary purpose of human contact is economic. This country has allowed the mental illness of greed to be its national ethic, the accumulation of wealth to be its highest purpose, the collection of rent its primary activity. Human beings be damned.

    I don’t feel like I am part of this anymore, nor do I want to be. I feel no sense of community. The truth is that dystopia is not a technical breakdown but a state of individual isolation, the fear of the law of the jungle, a return to the animal. Mad Max is in the mind. We have forgotten that community is the goal of sharing. Finland is happy not because everyone eats, but because they are one. To what do we belong in the United States of America? The loneliness is palpable.

  14. I well remember the Congressional hearings on TV where all the Tobacco executives were seated in a row and every one raised a hand and swore that smoking was not unhealthy. Of course they knew they were lying at that time. I wonder how many of them were actually smokers when they swore to God that smoking was harmless. I also wonder if they had guilty consciences and what their families thought of their deadly lies.

  15. First, I didn’t get a chance to wish everyone a Merry Christmas yesterday so I do now. We have a great deal of freedom saving work to start soon so a break now to celebrate an equally important aspect of life, love, is maybe a necessary start.

    I think that there are several really big issues in the discussion today but perhaps they all fall into the category of the post-truth era.

    We used to whine about the dishonesty in politics but I remember it more like, at least most of the time, dishonesty on a sales scale. Rarely all of the truth but also rarely no truth. Honesty was expected and given by everyone because credibility was essential in politics and business and life generally.

    Now those who seem to be gaining power over us lie blatantly and often and in lavishly self serving ways.

    And we accept that as OK if the lies make us feel good.

    I can’t see that in any way as a viable culture for any field. In fact it’s hard to imagine a recovery from that position.

    I use Facebook most everyday for family and friends certainly but increasingly also for climate science and political soap boxing.

    What scares me is the number of sources that now appear on my FB that are essential the equivalent of Murdoch/Ailes or Limbaugh for liberals and climate scientists.

    To whatever degree that’s accurate the cultural abyss that we are descending into is all the more troubling.

    So our first job must be to recover honesty by rebuilding cultural insistence on it in all of our transactions.

    Perhaps there is some downside of traditional “political correctness” which I was always taught as just the absence of rudeness.

    We need to call BS as it is from all sources; self serving lies. Nobody should get away with it without it being emphatically pointed out as in foul territory.

    It really is intolerable!

  16. SSK’s bloggers need not win the “inconclusive science” debate. Vote with your pocketbooks by enrolling in IPL’s Green Power Initiative, selecting 100% Green Power in your electricity delivery, and thereby fund solar, wind, landfill gas, and other renewable energy sources.

  17. Re: oil. Oil is one of a number of extractable fuels, as opposed to renewable fuels which can be reused over and over. There’s always wind and sunshine. I won’t even comment on oil being renewable.
    Community is what we need to work on. Read John Seymour on working together for basics.

  18. Nancy on of the deceptions that the GOP lives by is that business and therefore the party wants high employment. There’s nothing worse for business because it leads to high wages and benefits.

    No, they were happy when Bush II left town with the average wealth creator struggling.

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