Get In Touch

The difference between tobacco and asbestos?

Today if anyone quoted from the tobacco manufacturer’s scientific evidence that smoking does not cause lung cancer they would probably be laughed out of court. However, despite their own knowledge of the links, for many years they produced disinformation and funded scientific research to justify the continued sales of their product. Largely as the result of US litigation some of the realities of their strategy have come out.

A 1972 Tobacco Institute memorandum described the industry’s strategy for nearly twenty years, including: “creating doubt about the health charge” and “encouraging objective scientific research as the only way to resolve the question of the health hazard”. It goes on to describe how they disseminated the industry funded research in a believable manner to the public. They funded research to provide scientific evidence that there was some doubt or controversy over the allegations that cigarette smoking was hazardous to health.

However privately they were aware of the dangers: “Studies of clinical data tend to confirm the relationship between heavy and prolonged tobacco smoking and incidence of cancer of the lung.” (RJ Reynolds, US tobacco company, 1953)

“With one exception the individuals with whom we met believed that smoking causes lung cancer” (BAT scientists following tour of US tobacco companies, 1958)

In 1954 the US tobacco manufacturers jointly produced the ‘Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers’ which in relation to lung cancer stated: “there is no proof that cigarette smoking is one of the causes”.

The Royal College of Physicians issued the first major report on “Smoking and Health” in 1962, which concluded: “cigarette smoking is the most likely cause of the recent world-wide increase in deaths from lung cancer.” Two years later in the US the First Report of the Surgeon-General, “Smoking and Health”, concluded: “Cigarette smoking is causally related to lung cancer”.

Whatever tobacco manufacturers really believed about the link between lung cancer and smoking they maintained their public stance on the safety of cigarette smoke:

“None of the things which have been found in tobacco smoke are at concentrations which can be considered harmful. Anything can be considered harmful. Apple sauce is harmful if you get too much of it.” (Philip Morris, 1976).

In 1992 US Judge Sarokin ruled in the tobacco litigation case Haines v. Liggett Group:

“All too often in the choice between the physical health of consumers and the financial well-being of business, concealment is chosen over disclosure….the tobacco industry may be the king of concealment and disinformation.”

The use of “scientific” data to mislead the public, courts or governments about the safety of their product is a tactic used not only by the tobacco companies.

In 1954 the Pneumoconiosis Research Unit in South Africa examined asbestos mines and occupational disease. The work by J C Wagner published in 1960 linked the disease of mesothelioma to asbestos. Most worryingly, many of the cases of mesothelioma examined were not occupational, the vast majority were children who had lived near the asbestos mines, showing the lack of a dose relationship between the disease and asbestos.

Wagner went to work at Llandough Hospital in Wales to continue to work on asbestos related disease. His numerous lab studies over a number of years showed that chrysotile, white asbestos, produced the highest rates of mesotheliomas, even at low doses. His studies showed that chrysotile was the most carcinogenic of fibres.

In 1984 he dramatically changed his view and proclaimed “the innocence of chrysotile to humans”. This view he maintained through to the end of his career.

In 1991, while serving on the Health Effects Institute-Asbestos Research Literature Review Panel with 17 other experts in the field, Wagner was the sole dissenting voice in the panel’s findings that all types of asbestos, including chrysotile, caused mesothelioma.

It emerged during litigation in 2000 that the US asbestos company Owens-Illinois had been paying Wagner approximately $6000 a month for more than 15 years, funding he had denied previously.

He was interviewed in his home after retirement and admitted that beginning in the mid 1950s, the asbestos industry set out to frustrate scientific discovery and complained that sometime in the 1970s the whole scientific endeavour was “hijacked” by lawyers. This view had not stopped him appearing as a paid expert witness on behalf of those lawyers representing asbestos companies.

He was/is not alone in providing scientific “evidence” via industry funded research to support the continued sale of asbestos. Asbestos is still mined and sold on the pretence that white asbestos is safe. His studies and others like them are quoted and referred to in research and by experts in courts without a clear understanding of the context in which that evidence was prepared.

Many years ago I was involved in litigation which gained access to the T&N depository containing millions of pages of documents in a warehouse in Manchester. In numerous court cases spread over decades T&N had denied the existence of any such documentation. We described their conduct at the time as a systematic fraud on the English legal system.

Access to those documents gave an insight into the nature of the methods used by an industry to try and hide the truth to continue the sale of their products.

The tobacco industry continues to deny that cigarettes are addictive and argues that people choose to smoke even though they are aware of the dangers, a choice not given to those still exposed to asbestos in their workplace or schools.

The global death toll from asbestos related disease is likely to reach more than 5 million.