Masters Of 'Alternative Facts': Big Tobacco

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“Alternative facts” have been in the news frequently in the last few weeks. While this phrase is new, the tobacco industry and its executives have been masters of utilizing “alternative facts” for decades.

Since the first indication that tobacco products might cause disease, the tobacco industry has been funding research that puts its deadly products into a better light and assuring the public that their products are safe.

As early as 1952, the tobacco industry was aware that an association exists between smoking and cancer. By 1954, the industry was telling the public a very different story, that “medical research of recent years indicates many possible causes of lung cancer … there is no agreement among the authorities regarding what the cause is … there is no proof that cigarette smoking is one of the causes.” Unfortunately, this hasn’t stopped in the intervening years. For example, a recent review of tobacco industry documents from the late 1990s shows that “tobacco companies funded epidemiological and biological research that was designed to support claims that secondhand smoke posed little or no harm.”

The tobacco industry has long utilized its money and influence to get others to spread their “alternative facts” and deny the true harms of tobacco products. Unfortunately, this includes our current elected officials. As recently as 1998, Vice President Mike Pence wrote that “smoking doesn’t kill.” Throughout his political career, Pence has received more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from the tobacco industry. Philip Morris also donated $500,000 to President Trump’s inauguration, earning them a private dinner with the president and vice president. He’s certainly not alone – the tobacco industry contributed over $2.5 million to federal candidates in the last election cycle, buying the tobacco industry influence over our elected officials and in turn preventing public health laws with which the industry does not agree. Tom Price, who was confirmed last week as Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary, has apparently also received funds from the tobacco industry and has repeatedly voted against measures to regulate big tobacco.

But perhaps the longest lasting “alternative fact” from the tobacco industry is that they do not intend to harm their consumers.

In 1954, Phillip Morris Vice President George Weissman announced that Philip Morris would “stop business tomorrow” if “we had any thought or knowledge that in any way we were selling a product harmful to consumers.” In 1972, Philip Morris Vice President James Bowling said, “If our product is harmful, we will stop making it.” In 1997, Philip Morris CEO Geoffrey Bible was asked “What would you do with your manufacturing plant if scientists proved that cigarettes were a cause of cancer?” He replied, Shut it down instantly.”

Of course, despite decades of promises, tobacco companies show absolutely no intention of shutting down. Instead, they are doing just the opposite ― in 2013, the profits of the top six tobacco companies were $44.1 billion, equivalent to the combined profits of The Coca-Cola Company, Walt Disney, General Mills, FedEx, AT&T, Google, McDonald’s and Starbucks in the same year. At the same time, 6 million people worldwide died in 2013 due to tobacco use.

The tobacco industry has been playing with “alternative facts” for decades, and the results have been deadly.