Source: Mother Jones Contact: http://www.mojones.com/ Pubdate: Tue, 27 Jan 1998 Note: "Mother Jones is a magazine of investigation and ideas for independent thinkers." TOBACCO HISTORICALLY GIVEN LITTLE MEDIA COVERAGE ST. PAUL, Minn. -- In March 1968, three Army platoons searched a small South Vietnamese village for Viet Cong. They didn't find any, but they killed 347 unarmed men, women and children. Investigative journalists unearthed the secret of the My Lai massacre more than a year later. The stories spilled across front pages and filled the airwaves, sealing America's revulsion to the war. The body count at My Lai represents roughly one-third the number of Americans who die each day from diseases linked to tobacco. Yet for much of this century, the dangers of smoking received scant attention from journalists who usually revel in ferreting out government scandals or corporate malfeasance. Some experts maintain that enough information about smoking's adverse effects was out there in bits and pieces to warn smokers they were indulging in a risky habit. That will be among the tobacco industry's defenses in the landmark consumer fraud trial that opened last week in St. Paul. The state of Minnesota and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota are suing major cigarette manufacturers, seeking reimbursement for the medical costs of treating smoking's victims. Jurors will be asked to decide whether the tobacco industry conspired for decades to promote a false public controversy about the perils of smoking. The jury won't be asked another question: Was the press doing its job? The industry may call witnesses who will claim consumers knew the risks because the news media had long reported them. Other experts maintain the full extent of smoking's risks weren't adequately reported, and that the tobacco industry hid evidence of the dangers. ``I think there's no question that the media under-investigated the story,'' said Richard Daynard, who heads the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University in Boston. ``The question is whether it was bad journalistic judgment, or worse.'' ``The media would get an `F' on all levels,'' said Dr. Alan Blum, a family physician in Houston and founder of Doctors Ought to Care, or DOC. Anti-smoking activists fear Daynard's worst assessment: that tobacco advertising dollars bought silence from the media. Fearful of angering advertisers and losing revenue, many publications shied away from in-depth journalism on smoking, they contend. ``Journalists don't want to touch that one for a second,'' said Gene Borio, whose online tobacco resource site has become a major clearinghouse for daily information in the tobacco war. The Tobacco Institute, the industry's trade group, declined comment for this article, citing the pending litigation. But the financial factor in the relationship between tobacco and the media is considerable: In 1996, tobacco firms spent more than $657 million on advertising, up substantially from the $512 million the year before, according to Advertising Age magazine. ``They (journalists) don't even want to consider the connection between advertising and editorial,'' Borio said. ``It's the reason we're in the state we're in today. The tobacco industry was saying, `Trust us, this is it.' They had more aggressiveness in getting their story out to the public, and that was through advertising. It brought promulgation, and it brought silence on the part of the media. The advertising established the fact that if you ran a tobacco story, you threatened to cut a big hole in your advertising budget.'' Or you threatened to get yourself fired, as then-journalist Paul Maccabee discovered in 1982. The morning after he wrote a story for the now defunct Twin Cities Reader on the Kool Jazz Festival, the alternative weekly's publisher, the late Mark Hopp, called him into his office. Two-thirds of the way into his music review, Maccabee wrote about what he saw as the irony of a tobacco company -- in this case, Louisville, Ky.-based Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. -- sponsoring a jazz festival when so many jazz musicians had died from addictions to alcohol, drugs or tobacco. ``The publisher said, `If I have to crawl to Louisville, Kentucky, on my knees and beg them not to take their ads out of the Twin Cities Reader, I will do that. Paul, you're fired,''' recalled Maccabee, who now runs a public relations firm in Minneapolis. ``I was stunned,'' said Maccabee. ``It had never crossed my mind in a million years that the publisher of an independent, muckraking weekly would take action against a reporter who was poking in a music column. It wasn't like I was doing a story on a surgeon general's report.'' The media haven't been afraid to investigate the government (the Pentagon with My Lai, the White House with Watergate) or major corporations (Dow Chemical, Monsanto, Exxon), but when it comes to tobacco, ``There seems to be, even today, a lack of interest in pursuing really hot stories,'' said Elizabeth Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health, a consortium of physicians and scientists based in Washington. Whelan, who has studied the connection between tobacco advertising and media coverage of smoking, cited a story earlier this month on a California biotechnology firm that pleaded guilty to conspiring with a tobacco company to export high-nicotine tobacco seeds. For the first time, the government charged a firm in a criminal case related to alleged ``spiking,'' or artificially increasing, the nicotine content in tobacco, something the industry long denied that it did. ``That got minimal coverage,'' Whelan said. ``I think that's incredible.'' Press coverage of tobacco-related issues has increased in recent years, fueled by a flood of documents from lawsuits filed against tobacco companies. The documents have shown that cigarette companies knew much more than they were telling for years. The tobacco industry presented a united front through the jointly financed Tobacco Institute and the Council for Tobacco Research -- both largely public relations apparatuses, according to internal documents released in lawsuits. Much of the groups' work was disputing scientific studies that said tobacco was harmful or maintaining the jury was still out on the dangers of smoking. In a memo written in May 1972 by Tobacco Institute vice president Fred Panzer to the association's president, Horace Kornegay, Panzer described the group's strategy as ``brilliantly conceived and executed over the years.'' Panzer wrote that their job was to ``cast doubt about the health charge'' by using ``variations on the theme that `the case is not proved.''' But while Tobacco Institute spokesmen were telling the media that tobacco wasn't addictive and it wasn't a drug, the industry knew it was. In a 1963 memo, Brown & Williamson's top lawyer, Addison Yeaman, wrote, ``Moreover, nicotine is addictive. We are, then, in the business of selling nicotine, an addictive drug effective in the release of stress mechanisms.'' And while the Tobacco Institute was denying any link between smoking and cancer, industry scientists knew it existed. A 1946 letter from a chemist for cigarette maker Lorillard to the firm's manufacturing committee stated, ``Certain scientists and medical authorities have claimed for many years that the use of tobacco contributes to cancer development in susceptible people. Just enough evidence has been presented to justify the possibility of such a presumption.'' The May 27, 1950, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association published the first major study definitively linking smoking to lung cancer. The same issue carried another study that found 96.5 percent of the lung cancer patients interviewed were moderate-to-heavy smokers. Later that year, the British Medical Journal carried a study that found heavy smokers were 50 times more likely than nonsmokers to contract lung cancer. The general-interest media eventually got around to doing stories on the issue. The December 1952 issue of Reader's Digest republished journalist Roy Norr's groundbreaking article, ``Cancer by the Carton,'' which had appeared a couple of months before in the Christian Herald. The media's and the scientific community's growing interest in the health effects of smoking motivated tobacco companies to form the Tobacco Industry Research Council. Its creation was announced in a two-page ad that ran in 448 U.S. newspapers on Jan. 4, 1954. Three months later, the council published a booklet, ``A Scientific Perspective on the Cigarette Controversy.'' The booklet named 36 scientists who questioned the harmfulness of smoking; it was distributed to doctors and more than 15,000 members of the media. Spotty media scrutiny continued, with some exceptions. In 1955, CBS-TV's ``See It Now'' program aired the first television show linking smoking with lung cancer and other diseases. (Ironically, the show's host, Edward R. Murrow, appeared on the program without his trademark cigarette. He died of lung cancer in 1965.) The 1964 Surgeon General's report on smoking was front-page news; otherwise, there were few major or lengthy stories about tobacco, other than occasional articles on quitting smoking. In the search for journalistic ``balance,'' articles on smoking would usually carry responses from Tobacco Institute spokesmen, ``and their response was always given equal weight, and their response sounded so silly,'' said Jeanne Weigum, president of the Association of Non-Smokers of Minnesota. ``The tobacco industry would get some savvy, bogus research written, get it published someplace and then it would get quoted,'' said Weigum. ``Once it's quoted in the legitimate media, it becomes fact, kind of an urban legend.'' Lawsuits have forced the cigarette makers to release many of their closely guarded secrets, including their own research confirming that smoking was unhealthy. Those documents have shown what the industry knew and when it knew it, increasing media interest. ``I would say that up until relatively recently -- recently being the last two years -- there has been proportionately very, very little coverage of tobacco, based on the criteria of how many people it kills and the ramifications,'' said John Banzhaf, a law professor and head of Action on Smoking and Health in Washington. ``We now are to the point where the litigation has brought out a lot of secret documents, and secret documents create an interest in the press.'' Despite the criticism, most legitimate media have long maintained that advertising doesn't determine what's news. ``There are in most newsrooms ... feelings of anxiety and even hostility at any suggestion that advertisers should influence reporters or editors or news policy,'' said John Seigenthaler, longtime editor and publisher of the Nashville Tennessean and founder of the First Amendment Center. ``I think in those days, it remained a matter of tension if anybody from the advertising department came across the Berlin Wall that separated news from the business side.'' Still, Seigenthaler said he can't think of any examples of investigative journalism on the dangers of tobacco from the 1950s or '60s. But Seigenthaler doesn't think advertising pressure affected news judgment. In a view shared by others, he said reporters and editors were generally apathetic about the health aspects of tobacco because many of them smoked. ``The culture was quite different, but I don't think editors or journalists even thought about the health problems,'' he said. ``At least not until the (1964) surgeon general's report, and really not until more recent surgeons generals like (Dr. C. Everett) Koop really jumped on it.'' ``The problem that I have always seen, and it's somewhat less insidious (than advertising considerations), is just that the media didn't see it as important or sexy to the public,'' said Banzhaf, of Action on Smoking and Health. Smoking, he said, ``is just not as exciting as AIDS. Smoking has always killed 10 times more people than AIDS, but look at the publicity.'' Despite journalists' defensive assertions that their publications are unswayed by advertiser pressure, a number of studies have shown a correlation between how much tobacco advertising a magazine publishes and how many negative stories it runs on smoking. In one such study, Whelan, of the American Council on Science and Health, examined 13 different women's magazines over five months in 1996. It mirrored a similar survey she did a decade earlier. ``During this five-month period, no magazine carried a feature story on preventing lung cancer (now the leading cause of cancer death in women) or on smoking's role in causing cervical, pancreatic, bladder and other malignancies, or on the prominent role of smoking as a cause of heart disease,'' Whelan wrote of her study. The magazines did, however, play up the risks of cheese addiction, the toxic effect of displaced anger, dioxin in tampons, grilled meat and red dye No. 3. Coverage of tobacco issues in women's magazines has improved over the years, Whelan said. When she did a similar study a decade ago, ``our magazine surveys found no references whatsoever to the dangers of smoking.'' In 1978, the Columbia Journalism Review surveyed seven years of leading national magazines to gauge coverage of tobacco. The magazine said it couldn't find a single article that would have given readers ``a clear notion of the nature and extent of the medical and social havoc being wreaked by the cigarette-smoking habit ... one must conclude that advertising revenue can indeed silence the editors of American magazines.'' Cigarette companies haven't hesitated to pull their ads from magazines they thought were being unfair. In 1957, after Reader's Digest published two hard-hitting anti-smoking articles, American Tobacco, maker of Lucky Strikes, dropped its ads. One of the most famous such incidents involved the progressive magazine Mother Jones, and it cost the magazine dearly. The January 1979 issue of the magazine carried an article with the headline ``Why Dick Can't Stop Smoking.'' As a courtesy, the editors notified tobacco advertisers beforehand about the article so they could pull their ads from the issue if they desired. The tobacco companies responded by canceling their ads for that issue -- and several years' commitment for ads in Mother Jones. Tobacco advertising was banned from television and radio in 1971. The implementation of the ban was actually delayed a day to allow a final rash of cigarette commercials to run during the Super Bowl. The media are not solely to blame for scant coverage of the adverse effects of smoking, a number of experts contend. Health professionals, particularly the medical profession, are also at fault, said Robert Proctor, a professor of the history of science at Penn State University. ``I blame the scientists as much as the media, if not more so,'' said Proctor, whose book, ``Cancer Wars,'' was published in 1995. ``The National Cancer Institute still only spends 3 percent of its budget on smoking, even though smoking causes 30 percent of all cancers. I think that's pretty scandalous. Science is much more political than we're willing to realize.'' Research on smoking's health effects has long existed in medical journals, said Proctor. The first definitive links between lung cancer and smoking were found by German physicians in the 1930s. Even before that, a German study published in the 1780s linked lip cancer to pipe smoking. British researchers linked nasal cancers to snuff in the 1760s, he said. ``Those were reported in medical journals, but I don't know if they were reported in popular literature,'' said Proctor. ``Even the Indians probably knew that tobacco caused health problems.'' Blum, the Houston physician who founded DOC in 1977, also believes the scientific community must shoulder some of the blame for not widely reporting tobacco's ill effects. ``The question that has not been asked is not what did the tobacco industry know and when did they know it, but what did the health community know and when did they know it?'' said Blum. He cited the American Medical Association, the nation's largest physicians group. A month after the landmark surgeon general's report on the dangers of smoking came out in 1964, the AMA told the Federal Trade Commission that it agreed with the tobacco industry that it wasn't necessary to place health warnings on packs of cigarettes. In a letter to the FTC, the AMA said that ``local, state and the federal governments are recipients of and dependent upon many millions of dollars of tax revenue' from the sales of tobacco products. Two weeks before it sent the letter, the AMA accepted a $10 million grant from six tobacco companies to do tobacco research. ``That meant that the AMA knew about it,'' said Blum. ``It's a scandal of revisionism to the point where it doesn't matter anymore. All I'm saying is, look who was in cahoots with the tobacco industry. Everyone has cut a deal to hide their cahootness. The industry basically had everybody in their pocket.''