Source:   Mother Jones
Pubdate:  Tue, 27 Jan 1998
Note: "Mother Jones is a magazine of investigation and ideas for
independent thinkers."


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.

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

``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

``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

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

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

``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

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

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

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

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.''