Tobacco Industry Tried to Undermine Research

November 01, 2001
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Philip Morris tobacco company launched a hidden campaign in the 1990s to change the standards of scientific proof needed to demonstrate that secondhand smoke was dangerous, according to an analysis of internal tobacco industry documents by researchers at UCSF. The "sound science" standards they promoted through a variety of industry groups would have made proving the hazards of secondhand smoke virtually impossible, according to the study.

The tobacco industry strategy involved a seemingly noble calling for "sound science," while rejecting so-called "junk science" on secondhand smoke that actually threatened the industry's business interests.

Working through lawyers and public relations firms, Philip Morris sought to organize other industries to participate in the "sound science" movement, masking its own involvement. It also hired public relations and marketing firms to help form The Advancement for Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), developed to look like a grassroots organization of scientists and policymakers. Phillip Morris hoped TASSC would seem like an independent body rejecting evidence that secondhand smoke caused significant lung cancer and heart disease risk, according to the analysis of the documents.

In Europe, where secondhand smoke restrictions had not yet been put in place, Philip Morris promoted a set of standards originally proposed by the Chemical Manufacturers Association called "Good Epidemiology Practices." By modifying the proposal and developing new opportunities to introduce it, Philip Morris sought to establish an arbitrary threshold for identifying health risk from secondhand smoke - a threshold higher than what scientists had found for secondhand smoke.

The proposal would have revoked conclusions that an environmental toxin such as secondhand smoke was a public health problem. This effort was particularly focused on undermining a large European epidemiologic study of passive smoking and lung cancer being conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer at the time, the researchers found.

The analysis appears in the November issue of The American Journal of Public Health.

First author is Dr. Elisa K. Ong, a medical resident at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center who conducted the research while a medical student working in the Institute for Health Policy Studies at UCSF. Her co-author is Stanton Glantz, a core faculty member of the Institute and a professor of medicine at UCSF.

Between 1994 and 2000, seemingly independent seminars involving other industries and issues on the so-called "Good Epidemiology Practices" (GEP) were conducted in the United States, United Kingdom, European Union and China, yet in all cases Philip Morris was connected to these events, the documents show.

Essentially, Philip Morris appropriated the "sound science" concept to shape the standards of epidemiology and to prevent increased smoking restrictions, the authors state.

"Phillip Morris has gone beyond `creating doubt' and `controversy' about the scientific attempting to change the scientific standards of proof," they write.

The approach, the report states, ignores the fact that a comprehensive assessment of risk involves considering all the evidence related to a toxin, not just the epidemiology.

"While every practicing scientist agrees that scientific work should be rigorously done, the scientific, public health and regulatory community need to be more aware that the `sound science' and `GEP' movement is not simply an indigenous effort from within the profession... but also reflects sophisticated public relations campaigns controlled by industry executives and lawyers to manipulate the scientific standards of proof for the corporate interests of their clients," the authors conclude.

The research was supported by the National Cancer Institute and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund.

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