Why was radioactive polonium-laced tobacco used in cigarettes?
The Tobacco Conspiracy
European Commission Public Health
Smoking kills indeed: with their lies and schemes, American cigarette manufacturers have created an unprecedented health disaster. For a decade historian Robert Proctor has been combing through their internal documents. Now he’s published the chilling account of his findings.
Stanford (U.S.A.), from our special correspondent
Do you believe you’re a smoker because you’re enjoying it, that’s just the way it is, and you don’t want to change your mind about it? Then turn the page: this article isn’t for you. But maybe you do want to know why people smoke and why stopping seems so difficult? Why so many of us are dying from it? And why all that is deemed to be normal? To that end, we’ll need to enter the engine room of the biggest ever undertaking in engineering consent. It’s a complex place, a tangle of men and organisations, who became cogs in a finely-tuned machine that can infiltrate culture and science, undermine medicine and corrupt anyone. You’ll need a guide to navigate that maze — and Robert Proctor is just that person.
Mr Proctor (57) is neither a conspiracy theorist nor a health-freak. A science historian who teaches at Stanford, California, he’s the author of Golden Holocaust, an essay recently published in the U.S. that has got the American tobacco industry seriously worried — so worried that it’s used every possible legal trick to get its hands on the manuscript before its release — to no avail.
What makes the hefty, 750-page tome so worrisome to giants like RJ Reynolds or Philip Morris? Their own words, to start with. Their secrets, big or small, lifted from memos and internal correspondence, from classified reports, from research findings by their own chemists and doctors. It’s little known in France that those documents, as valuable and sensitive as they are, have been public since the end of the 1990’s — the so-called “tobacco documents”. In 1998, the Master Settlement Agreement, which put an end to the lawsuits brought by 46 U.S. states against cigarette manufacturers, imposed financial penalties — USD 250 billion (€ 188 billion) to be paid over two decades; it also ordered that industry secrets be made public.
Millions of documents from the major manufacturers, spanning over five decades, were put in the care of the University of California, in San Francisco, along with the task of building the “Legacy Tobacco Documents Library” and bringing the whole archive online. To this day 13 million documents have been scanned, which amounts to a whopping 79 million pages, and new ones are added every day. Based on that corpus, Golden Holocaust is an attempt to tell the unabridged tale of the cigarette. Robert Proctor has been poring over the tobacco documents for over ten years now — enough to make a man paranoid. Among other findings, he learned that the professor who many years ago hired him at Stanford had secretly been on the industry’s payroll. He also understood why one of his grant applications was rejected by the National Science Foundation, America’s main funding body for research: the desk officer was being paid by the tobacco industry…
Everyone who spent some time looking at the tobacco documents reached broadly the same conclusions. In July 2000 experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO) published a damning 260-page report showing how manufacturers had infiltrated their organisation through front organisations or scientists they were secretly paying. The idea, of course, was to prevent the tobacco-control policies from being implemented. When in 1999 the Clinton administration decided to sue, based in part on the documents, the federal prosecutors argued that for half a century the American tobacco industry had “engaged in and executed – and continue to engage in and execute – a massive 50-year scheme to defraud the public”.
Tobacco is first and foremost about numbers — mind-boggling numbers. Every year smoking kills more than malaria, more than AIDS, more than war and more than terrorism – combined. Every year over 5.5 million of lives are lost prematurely. Tobacco killed 100 million people in the 20th century, and will probably claim one billion lives over the course of this century.
Thinking about tobacco is enough to make your head swim. Enough cigarettes are made in a year to fill 24 Egyptian pyramids. Lit cigarettes will deposit some 60,000 tonnes of tar in human lungs. It makes you wonder if humanity has ever invented anything more uselessly harmful to itself. The answer’s no. “The cigarette”, Robert Proctor says, “is the deadliest artefact in the history of human civilization.”
And there are more numbers, more calculations. “For every million cigarettes smoked over a year there will one premature death within 25 years. That law works more or less everywhere”*, Robert Proctor notes. That macabre rule has unexpected applications, such as estimating the number of deaths caused by the lies of Big Tobacco’s management.
On 14 December 1953, tobacco moguls met discreetly at the New York Plaza Hotel. A few months earlier experiments using mice had shown the carcinogenic effects of the product they were selling — something German doctors had known since the 1920’s — and newspapers were picking up the story. After meeting with the director of PR consultancy Hill & Knowlton, the big cigarette manufacturers launched a propaganda campaign highlighting scientific uncertainty, ensuring the public remained unaware of just harmful smoking was. It’s important to “keep the controversy alive”, a Brown & Williamson executive wrote in a famous memo found in the tobacco documents: “Doubt is our product”. A successful product: only in 1964 did the American health authorities start giving clear warnings of the link between tobacco and lung cancer.
Ten years up in smoke.
“If we shift the tobacco consumption curves, that is if we move the peak identified in 1964 back to 1954, we see that 8,000 billion ‘excess’ cigarettes were smoked in the U.S. They wouldn’t have been smoked if the public had known the truth ten years earlier”, Robert Proctor says. “That means 8 million deaths in the decades that followed.” The lies of half a dozen industry tycoons responsible for the loss of millions of lives? A work of fiction featuring such a massive conspiracy would be dismissed as unrealistic or silly.
It didn’t all begin in December 1953. The manoeuvring started earlier already. Let’s take the Marshall Plan for instance. The vast programme aimed at helping rebuild a war-ravaged Europe was “exploited by American tobacco companies to get Europeans hooked on easily inhalable, flue-cured blond tobacco”. Therein lies the key. Flue curing is a method for drying tobacco leaves. In the late 19th century the technique became widespread in the U.S.; it makes the smoke less irritating, making it easier to inhale deeply. But through the first half of the 20th century, people in much of continental Europe were still smoking black tobacco, which is very harsh and much less harmful and addictive. The deeper the smoke is inhaled into the lungs, the faster the influx of nicotine, the stronger the addiction — and the worse the lung damage. “The [12 July 1947] Paris meeting which set the Marshall Plan into motion included no request from the Europeans regarding tobacco”, Robert Proctor says. “That was put forward by a senator from Virginia. In total, for every two dollars of food, one dollar of tobacco was exported to Europe.”*
To this day the cigarette’s success still relies on the Big Tobacco chemists’ talent for making the smoke more delicate, more volatile, more pervasive. Smokers are used to that feeling of fresh prickling in their lungs, which they take to be natural and normal: we “swallow” the smoke. But this is anything but natural — how we inhale is the result of complex chemistry. Hundreds of components are added to tobacco: combustion adjuvants, ammonia, sugars, various additives, etc. They make the smoke less irritating and more inhalable. “It can be argued that the cigarette is actually a defective product, since it’s much more harmful than it ‘ought’ to be… It is modified so as to make smokers as addicted as possible, which makes it more dangerous”*, Robert Proctor says.
Sometimes substances are found in cigarettes that weren’t planned by the industry’s chemists, but are of nature’s making, as is the case for polonium-210. For unexplained reasons, tobacco leaves have an unwelcome property: they capture and store that radioactive element, which occurs in minute amounts in nature. The tobacco documents show that the industry knew about this inconvenient truth since the 1950’s, but didn’t say a word about it. Only in the mid-1960’s were independent papers first published about this…
Golden Holocaust recounts how the cigarette manufacturers dealt with this “minor concern” regarding the quality of their finished product. And the many details recorded in the tobacco documents are unbelievable. The companies initially attempted to get rid of the radioactive element. They commissioned studies which they kept secret, since publishing them was risking “waking a sleeping giant”, as a Philip Morris executive wrote to his boss in 1978: “The subject is rumbling and I doubt we should provide facts.”
Several solutions were found. Changing fertilizers? Treating the tobacco leaves in an acid bath? Selecting low-polonium varieties? It seems none of those solutions were adopted, because solving the problems would have “no commercial advantage”, in the words of a RJ Reynolds executive quoted in the documents. Acid washing would involve a “proper disposal” system for radioactive waste — at a cost.
But more importantly, the manufacturers feared that this kind of treatment could alter the chemical properties of nicotine, making it less able to maintain that most precious asset: addiction. And they felt it best not to bring that problem into the spotlight, even it if was just to announce that a solution had been found. In the 1980’s Philip Morris shut down its dedicated laboratory. Best not to wake a sleeping giant…
Some thirty years later, the giant is still sound asleep. How many smokers know they’re carrying a pack of 20 sticks containing a little polonium-210? How many know — according to a 1982 New England Journal of Medicine study — that smoking a pack and a half a day is like having your chest x-rayed 300 times in a year? How many know that this very polonium- 210 is the cause of a non-negligible proportion of cancers among smokers? Once you know this, you can’t help but feel sad when you see anti-nuclear protestors lighting a cigarette while they’re waiting for that depleted-uranium convoy they mean to intercept — blissfully unaware that they are inhaling a radioactive element that will irradiate them from within…
Such paradoxes are testament to the success of a propaganda campaign. There are more, such as the pleasure of smoking a cigarette. “It is pure fabrication by the industry”, Robert Proctor argues. “That is a crucial difference with other drugs such as alcohol or weed. The cigarette is not a recreational drug: it provides no intoxication, no ebriation.” All it does is provide relief to tobacco addicts, it allows them to function. “It’s spelled out clearly in the documents: smoking isn’t like ‘drinking alcohol’, it’s like ‘being a alcoholic'”, he says. “Only about 3 percent of all people who drink are alcoholics, while 80-90% of smokers are addicted. It’s akin to slavery.”*
In the early 1990’s this didn’t prevent the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) from campaigning for “freedom” of smoking in the workplace. True, the renowned ACLU had just received several hundred thousand dollars from the tobacco industry… “How can you speak of freedom, when in surveys 90% of smokers say they want to quit but can’t?”* Orwell’s newspeak comes to mind: “War is peace”, “Love is hate”, the ubiquitous party claimed in 1984. In the world of tobacco, “Slavery is freedom”.
And that message hits home. Teenagers see the cigarette as a representing a rebellious attitude. Making kids believe that giving up their bodily functions to big business is an act of rebellion — that is a true marketing tour de force, and that goal appears in so many words in the tobacco documents: young people must be sold on the idea that smoking is “acceptable rebellion”.
That’s the most fascinating aspect of this story: the creation of conditioned responses in people that are not susceptible to critical analysis or even plain common sense. It’s the result of massive investment. For decades millions of dollars have ensured the continued presence of cigarette brands in Hollywood movies. More tobacco millions are invested in academic biomedical research, not for finding cures for tobacco-related diseases but, most often, for documenting genetic dispositions to conditions ascribed (or not) to smoking… “Huge amounts of tobacco money have supported research in functional genetics, to the detriment of research on environmental risk factors, such as tobacco”, Robert Proctor says. “This creates what I call a ‘macro-bias’ in scientific reasoning. It helps support the idea that diseases are built-in inside us, and that nothing can be done about it.”
Infiltrating culture, infiltrating science. Robert Proctor still had to tackle his own profession. “I looked for the rats in my own house”*, he says. In lawsuits, 50 or so historians — most of them funded or secretly paid by cigarette manufacturers — testified in favour of the industry. In the tobacco documents manufacturers consider setting up a “stable” of scientists. Only two American historians — including the author of Golden Holocaust — sided with the victims.
History is an important battlefield, crucial even. “Approaching history in a specific way”, the Stanford academic concludes, “as in that paper about ‘The origins of the tobacco controversy in 17th century England’, makes it possible to trivialize a phenomenon that would otherwise appear as intolerable.”* Smoking must be made to look like just any other historical phenomenon – to conceal the unprecedented nature of a mass addiction that only took off in the mid-20th century.
Influencing history and social science for engineering consent: in his book Proctor recounts how Philip Morris formalized that goal in 1987 as ‘Project Cosmic’, a plan to “establish an extensive network of scientists and historians from all over the world”, according to the tobacco documents, to “produce tobacco-friendly scholarship”.
Here’s a concrete example, among so many. In the 1990’s the historian was working on an original and little-researched topic: public health policies in Nazi Germany and Hitler’s war on smoking. In 1997 one of Proctor’s papers was accepted by the Bulletin of the History of Medicine. But a few years later the publication turned down another submission, this time about the American tobacco industry. When a study feeds the narrative linking tobacco control with totalitarianism, it’s accepted; if it upsets the industry, it’s rejected… The key, Proctor says, is “looking at who sits on the Bulletin’s editorial board and at the financial relationships between some of its members and Big Tobacco”*. Project Cosmic’s yes men were manning the gates there.
Le Monde asked the above-mentioned tobacco companies for comment; they declined.
The content of this article does not reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Responsibility for the information and views expressed therein lies entirely with the author(s).