“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.

 

 

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