What happens when the tobacco industry gets to pick the Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health?


This was a brand name. Wouldn’t you want to smoke Problem Cigarettes, you rebel?

The comittee rules against tobacco anyway. Given the evidence, who wouldn’t? This month marks 50 years since the committee issued its landmark report. It was, arguably, the start of a new era in public health: focusing on long term threats to health and not just scrambling to contain disease outbreaks.

In 1962, the evidence was already abundantly, alarmingly clear. By that point, the Royal College of Physicians in the UK had published their own report condemning tobacco. Italy and Denmark had outlawed tobacco advertising. Although the Surgeon General’s office had made a report on tobacco a few years back (conclusion: it’s bad for you), they decided it was time to try again.

When the committee was being selected, there were representatives in the room from government agencies and from groups like the American Cancer Society. And, last but not least, the Tobacco Institute. This is the group that Dave Barry described, in (I am not making this up) 1988, as working like this:

 FIRST SCIENTIST: Well, Ted, for the 13,758th consecutive experiment, all of the cigarette-smoking rats developed cancer! What do you make of it?


FIRST SCIENTIST: It`s a puzzle, all right! Hey, look at this: These rats have arranged their food pellets to form the words “CIGARETTES CAUSE CANCER, YOU ZITBRAINS.“ What could this possibly mean?

Anyone in the room could cross any scientist off the list, no reasons needed, which means the Tobacco Institute had complete veto power. Scientists with publicly declared positions on tobacco (either way) were also struck from the list.

And there was still no way to deny the evidence. The committee performed their own meta-analysis of some of the best studies done in the previous decade. The results were damning. Lung cancer: 1,833 deaths in smokers vs. 123 deaths in non-smokers. Coronary artery disease: 11,177 vs. 4,731. All causes: 26,223 vs. 11,168.

Table of smoker vs. non-smoker mortality

From page 102 of the report. (Click to embiggen.)

The following year, we got the first Surgeon General’s Warning labels. In 1998, the Tobacco Institute was dissolved as part of the Master Settlement Agreement that resulted from US states’ suit against tobacco companies. A paper in JAMA (free access) calculates that tobacco control saved 8 million lives since 1964.

You can read the historic, now-50-year-old report, here: Smoking and Health (1964)

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One Response to What happens when the tobacco industry gets to pick the Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health?

  1. David Lloyd-Jones says:

    In the United States witnesses at criminal trials may be paid for their testimony. There is a whole class of people who make some or all of their income from testifying at trials.

    The rest of the world looks on in wonder: how can these Americans not be aware that people will shade their opinions to please their paymasters?

    And then there’s university research…