Sep 1 1994

Smoke Screens

When Journalists Boost the Tobacco Industry, Follow the Money

Over the past few years, mainstream media coverage of the dangers of cigarette smoking has dramatically increased. But the tobacco industry is fighting back.

One of the industry’s most visible counterattacks was a series of full-page ads from Philip Morris, which ran in 40 newspapers across the country, reprinting an article from Forbes MediaCritic (Summer/94) that questioned the idea that secondhand smoke causes cancer in non-smokers.

The Philip Morris ads presented Forbes MediaCritic‘s report–written by Jacob Sullum, then managing editor of Reason magazine, now at National Review–as an objective antidote to the media’s biased reporting on secondhand smoke. Sullum’s article argued that news accounts of the Environmental Protection Agency’s 1993 report on secondhand smoke were “one-sided, credulous and superficial,” and that journalists “missed an important story about the corruption of science by the political crusade against smoking.”

In the report, the EPA looked at 30 epidemiological studies of non-smoking women who lived with smoking men. All but six of these studies showed increased lung cancer among these women; in nine the increase was “statistically significant,” meaning that the result is highly unlikely to result by chance.

Where’s the “corruption of science” that the press supposedly missed? Sullum made a variety of claims that depend on the reader not being too familiar with statistics. He says, for example, that the results of the studies were “weak, inconsistent and inconclusive,” when the odds of getting 24 positive results out of 30 studies purely by chance are less than one in 1,000. The chance of getting nine significant results by chance is less than 1 in 10,000.

Sullum’s argument hinges on the idea that the EPA lowered the level of confidence needed to declare a study significant. In fact, the EPA used an appropriate standard for testing a substance not believed to have a possible beneficial effect (Biostatistical Analysis, Jerrold Zar, pp. 101-103). Even Sullum, in an interview with Extra!, admitted that the “vast majority” of epidemiologists would find the standard that the EPA used “perfectly legitimate.”

In his article, he argued that a technique the EPA used for combining the results of different studies, known as “meta-analysis,” is a shady way of cooking the books, when actually it’s a widely used tool of epidemiology (Epidemiologic Reviews, 1992). He ignores the strong correlation the EPA found in the studies between higher levels of exposure to second-hand smoke and increasing cancer rates (Respiratory Health Effects of Passive Smoking, pp. 5.36-5.45).

Sullum never mentions the evidence presented by the EPA beyond the epidemiological studies, including animal tests and analysis of the known carcinogens in secondhand smoke. He also fails to point out that the surgeon general and the National Academy of Sciences both declared secondhand smoke to be a cancer risk in 1986.

“In any controversy, facts must matter,” Philip Morris’ ads exclaim. Facts do matter–which is perhaps why the ads do not mention the fact that the author of the reprinted article has financial ties to the tobacco industry. The Reason Foundation, which employed Sullum when he wrote the article, received at least $10,000 from Philip Morris in 1993 (AP, 6/24/94), and got further funding from Philip Morris subsidiary Kraft General Foods (L.A. Times, 7/18/94). Sullum himself has received $5,000 from R.J. Reynolds, another major cigarette company (Richmond Times Dispatch, 6/30/94)–to reprint another article he wrote about secondhand smoke.

In an interview with Extra!, Sullum defended not disclosing this funding, saying, “The money they paid me was a drop in the bucket compared to what they paid for the advertising.”

One of Sullum’s key sources, Gary Huber of the University of Texas Health Science Center, also has financial ties to the tobacco industry. His own description of his career notes that his research on secondhand smoke at Harvard was funded in part by a grant “from the major tobacco cigarette manufacturers in the United States.” He left another job, heading the University of Kentucky’s Tobacco and Health Research Institute, after evidence surfaced of further payments from R.J. Reynolds, Brown and Williamson, and the Tobacco Institute (UPI, 3/31/81). Yet Sullum never mentions Huber’s industry links.

Sullum cites another EPA skeptic, Alvan Feinstein, without disclosing that he has received large amounts of tobacco industry funding. Between 1985 and 1990, according to confidential documents that leaked from Brown and Williamson, Feinstein received at least $700,000 for “basic epidemiological research” from the “special projects” fund of the industry’s Center for Tobacco Research. But for Sullum, he’s just “an epidemiologist at Yale University.”

Ironically, Sullum repeatedly scolds the press for failing to “quote any critics of the [EPA] report who were not affiliated with the tobacco industry.” Sullum himself appears to have found it difficult to find many such sources. He now says he was unaware of his sources’ industry ties, but dismisses them as not “relevant.” No worries here about possible “corruption of science.”

Why would Forbes MediaCritic publish a one-sided article on second-hand smoke by a writer associated with the tobacco industry, who passes off cigarette company-funded researchers as objective scientists? As Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon pointed out in their syndicated column (Seattle Times, 7/26/94), Forbes launching a journal on media ethics is akin to Bob Packwood starting a publication on sexual etiquette.

Forbes has a history of publishing hatchet jobs on prominent corporate foes–like Ralph Nader, environmentalists or personal injury lawyers–and using the articles as a draw to sell ads to the advertisers who benefit (Extra!, 1-2/91, 1-2/92).

A recent issue of Forbes (7/4/94) included a bizarre article suggesting that smoking cigarettes might actually be good for you. It included the argument that smoking helps you lose weight, which might reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease that smoking is “supposed” to exacerbate. (Cocaine helps you lose weight, too–perhaps Forbes will run an article on the health benefits of crack.)

But Forbes is not the only media company that gives credence to dubious information on tobacco from sources who are close to the industry. CBS‘s America Tonight (7/6/94) provided a segment on Canadian cigarette taxes that couldn’t have been more one-sided if it had been paid for by the Tobacco Institute: “Don’t even consider it,” is the segment’s concluding advice to the U.S. on raising cigarette taxes.

Not a single source appeared who defended cigarette taxes or criticized the tobacco industry. Instead, the segment focused on the opinions of one Rod Stamler, identified as a “former top officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.” Stamler’s research on cigarette smuggling is presented as unquestioned fact, and he serves as a guide to the smuggling region for America Tonight correspondent, Bob McKeown.

This unquestioning reliance on Stamler would have seemed peculiar if the former Mountie’s more current affiliation had been disclosed: Stamler now works with the Canadian consulting firm of Lindquist Avey Macdonald Baskerville, researching the smuggling issue for the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers Council (as well as Imperial Tobacco, a major Canadian producer). The integrity of his research has been strongly attacked by anti-smoking groups in Canada, who say it is slanted to support the industry’s anti-tax campaign.

This was certainly true of the information presented by CBS‘s McKeown. “Did those high taxes convince Canadians to kick the habit?” he asked himself. “No. Last year, smoking in Canada actually increased for the first time in a decade.” In fact, since 1982, when Canada began raising cigarette taxes, daily per capita cigarette consumption was 10.13–about what it had been since 1958. According to Canada’s Non-Smokers’ Rights Association (citing government and tobacco industry statistics), it has dropped every year since then, to 5.86 in 1993–a decline of more than 40 percent.

McKeown continued with more distortion: “The government’s hopes for more tax revenue? Well, they went up in smoke, too. Because what high cigarette taxes in Canada did do was create a billion-dollar smuggling industry all along the Canada-U.S. border.” In fact, even as cigarette consumption fell dramatically, tax revenues rose: According to the Non-Smokers Rights Association, Canada took in $2.26 billion (Canadian dollars) from cigarette taxes in 1982; in 1993, it was $6.34 billion, down from a peak of $7.2 billion in 1992.

How could America Tonight put out such a one-sided, deceptive piece promoting the perspective of the cigarette industry? One is reminded of the fact that the Loews corporation, which has a controlling stake in CBS, also owns Lorrilard tobacco.

The segment also calls to mind the time that America Tonight co-host Deborah Norville appeared at a 1989 Philip Morris convention in Hawaii, paid to be the co-host of a mock TV news program called P.M. in the A.M. “Norville tossed soft questions at Philip Morris executives and read promotional copy,” the New York Times later reported (6/10/90), reading lines like, “We’ll be taking a look at Marlboro’s efforts to try to maximize its growth in market potential and check out what’s happening with price-value brands.”

Long before Norville’s performance in Hawaii, she had pointed out the ethical dilemmas such conflicts pose (quoted in the Chicago Tribune, 11/21/89): “If, for personal financial reasons, a reporter finds it important to work an outside job, I think he or she should certainly refrain from reporting on subjects connected with the outside job.”

The fake news show for which Norville was paid by Philip Morris could not have been more pro-tobacco than the real news show that she co-hosted for CBS. Like Forbes MediaCritic‘s defense of secondhand smoke, America Tonight leaves one wondering just who these journalists are working for.