Category Archives: tobacco documentary

“Merchants of Doubt”: Big Oil, Big Chemical take a lesson from Big Tobacco

Merchants of Doubt

I have put this documentary in my Netflix queue, though I have a feeling it will be really bad for my blood pressure. This is a documentary by the Robert Kenner, who also made “Food, Inc.” about how the oil industry, chemical industry and pharmaceutical companies have copied the same techniques used for many years by Big Tobacco to “change the narrative” about the dangers of their product (in the case of the oil industry, global warming), by sowing the seeds of doubt and confusion in the American product. The movie has the same title of a book I have to get my hands on by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.

Lucky Strike cigarette ad 1940s

The purveyors of doubt have been extremely successful in shaping public opinion on global warming, unfortunately, by creating the idea that “there is no scientific consensus” that man is causing climate change, even though 97 percent of scientists involved in the fields of climate, meteorology, etc., have actually reached this consensus. By finding a few loud voices (and likely paying some of those voices handsomely) to rail against the consensus, the industry has pretty effectively changed the discourse and changed public attitudes about global warming. Most polls show roughly half of respondents don’t believe mankind is creating the problem of global warming.

merchants of doubt book

Tobacco was very successful in its campaign to confuse the public for decades. For years, Big Tobacco found its own scientists to refute the growing evidence that cigarettes were behind the epidemic of lung cancer cases that began around the 1930s (roughly 30 years after cigarettes starting becoming popular.). Some of the same exact people who cut their teeth in a massive disinformation campaign for tobacco actually went on to work for the chemical industry and oil industry.

From a New York Times review of “Merchants of Doubt”:

“If you can ‘do tobacco,’ ” one of the perpetrators is quoted as saying, “you can do just about anything in public relations.”

The awesome book, “A Cigarette Century” chronicles in exquisite detail the steps that the tobacco industry went to counter the concerns over cigarettes. The U.S. Surgeon General’s report on lung cancer and smoking came out way back in 1964 and you would have thought this would be the death knell for the tobacco industry. Yet, the smoking rate remained stubbornly high over the next 30 years. Why? Doubt. Confusion. Paid shills. No one knew what to believe.

The tobacco industry established its own laboratories and did its own research, partly to generate data it believed would disprove the fears over lung cancer and smoking. Instead, the tobacco industry’s own data confirmed those fears and the industry kept this information under wraps for decades until it finally came gushing out in the 1980s and 1990s mostly through the discovery process of numerous lawsuits against the tobacco industry.

Meanwhile, the industry continued to maintain the safety of its products, putting filters on the cigarettes (which essentially do nothing) and having doctors in ads and promoting their products as safer than other brands. Incredibly, as late as the mid-1990s, tobacco executives continued to insist during congressional hearings that nicotine was not addictive, despite the reams and reams of evidence proving otherwise.

Like I said, this movie will not be good for my blood pressure. One of the reasons I get so worked up about it was arguing with my mom after my dad died of lung cancer at 49. First, she insisted that it was Hodgkin’s disease, not lung cancer from the four packs a day he smoked. Then, she claimed if he got lung cancer, it was from air pollution. The “air pollution is causing the epidemic of lung cancer” line is  STRAIGHT out of the Big Tobacco disinformation campaign from the 1950s. Twenty-five years later, that stuck in my mom’s head. Twenty-five years later, she used that as a rationale to continue smoking and now she is dealing with severe COPD.

Sigh. The lies people tell. And the people that listen to them.



CNBC’s Cigarette Wars — “It’s still a legal product”

cigarette wars What I was struck by in the CNBC documentary “Cigarette Wars” was how a pair of tobacco farmers, when asked, “how do you feel about growing a deadly product?” just kept repeating the mantra, “it’s still a legal product.”

“Not everyone dies from smoking,” Tobacco farmer Todd Clark says, then quickly adds for properity’s sake: “although there’s nothing positive about smoking in any way shape or form.” You could see in their eyes (well, not in this one clip because the guy is wearing shades), that they didn’t really buy their own mantra. You could see in their eyes this is what they told themselves every night … so they could sleep.

I wrote down at least six times two tobacco farmers told CNBC, “it’s still a legal product.” Six times. Cigarette Wars is an hour-long documentary that looks at the growing of tobacco, smoking bans, cigarette marketing, smoking in Hollywood, cigarette smuggling and cigarette exports. It interviews smoking ban proponents, tobacco farmers and ad execs (but no one from the tobacco industry would speak on camera … acting like the legalized Mafia they are.) I was struck most by two things … the tobacco farmers and Stanton Glantz calling Hollywood directors who insert smoking into their movies “stupid and corrupt.” (Hear that James Cameron? Stanton Glantz just called you stupid and corrupt.).

Here’s why farmers still grow tobacco, knowing full well it’s a deadly product, knowing full well that the only way they’ll be able to sleep at night is telling themselves “it’s still a legal product.” Because it makes a lot of money. According to tobacco farmer Todd Clark, who seemed like a nice enough guy, tobacco can make bring in $1,500 an acre, versus only $300 an acre for corn or other products. So, if you have a 1,000-acre farm … $1,500 an acre is a lot of money to turn away. How does Todd Clark sleep at night? “I don’t think about the end result,” he told CNBC. He admits he has to emotionally separate himself from the damage his cash crop causes to society. (More on him later.).

The documentary then moves on smoking bans. One of the biggest proponents of smoking bans in the country is anti-smoking zealot Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York. His response to smoking bans putting farmers out of business? “There are very few growers out there … and a lot of America kids.” The documentary talked about cigarette smuggling … a bigger enterprise than I realized. One of the problems with state setting up their own cigarette taxes is the tax rate vary wildly from state to state. The taxes can be as low as 30 cents a pack in Virginia to $4.35 a pack in New York. So, it’s a lucrative business to buy up a shitload of cigarette cartons in Virginia, mark them up by $2 a pack and sell them in New York. Some of these schemes have helped fund the IRA and Hezbelloh.

I also enjoyed the segment on cigarettes and Hollywood as this is a personal fascination of mine. Tobacco companies paid movie studios millions of dollars between the 1970s and 1998, but as part of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, the companies are prohibited from paying for cigarette product placement in films. Yet, from 1998 to 2008, smoking scenes in movies actually went up. Why? Stupidity, said Stanton Glantz. Glantz is a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and has been on the frontlines of the fight against Big Tobacco for at least 30 years. He, and many others, are advocates for including an automatic R rating for inserting smoking scenes in movies. (I was dubious about this idea for a long time, but Hollywood has shown such an abject intransigence toward doing the right thing, that I now embrace the idea.) “Because directors are either stupid or corrupt,” Glantz said. The documentary specifically picks on James Cameron and “Avatar,” which had a completely gratuitous and pointless smoking scene with Sigourney Weaver (and it was a family film rated PG-13).

Glantz points out directors are just plain stupid to give a multi-billion dollar industry free advertising with getting a cent in return. One 21-year-old college student and heavy smoker pointed out that Hollywood taught him as a kid that “smoking is just badass.” There followed a montage of Hollywood stars smoking, including Irish douchebag Colin Farrell. 🙂 Stupid Irish idiot smoking The “Truth” anti-smoking campaign is next featured. I love this campaign, though it threatens to die from lack of funding every year, because it doesn’t try to tell kids smoking is bad for them. A “Truth” spokeperson acknowledges that often the best way to get kids to do something is to tell them it’s bad for them. “Our goal to to disrupt their (Big Tobacco’s) business model.” Instead, “Truth” focuses on trying to get through to kids that corporations are manipulating them and turning them into their slaves (though nicotine addiction). Truth has been a wildly successful program despite their tiny budget. Even though they can no longer advertise on TV or radio, tobacco companies still spend more on marketing every day than Truth spends in an entire year.

The documentary moves on to global tobacco use. We can fight the tobacco industry all we want, but they are simply going to export their epidemic overseas. While the smoking rate in the U.S. is less than half of what it was 50 years ago, smoking is thriving and even on the increase in Eastern Europe, Russia and China. They are 320 million smokers in China, compared to 55 million in America. That’s a big tempting market for American tobacco companies (they mostly smoke Asian tobacco still in China, but believe me, Big Tobacco is trying to horn in … and China is aware of it, too. They aren’t stupid.)

I did like how the documentary ended. There seems to be hope for tobacco farmer Todd Clark. He’s diversified his farm into other products, such as cattle, chickens, other crops, because tobacco appears to be on the decline. He admitted that the “reality has sunken in more than it ever has before” that the days of American tobacco are on the wane, and that Clark is putting more energy into “having to do other things (grow other crops.).” “I’m excited about those other things,” Clark said.