A Little Doubt Goes a Long Way

Almost anyone you talk to, including smokers, has some sense that the tobacco industry isn’t completely honest with the public. They’ve heard about court cases and big fines in the news, and they have some awareness that cigarette manufacturers have knowingly deceived people about the dangers of smoking over the years so they can stuff more money into the pockets of their $5,000 suits.  

There are about 1.1 billion smokers in the world [1]. You have to wonder what that number might be without the massive efforts of the tobacco industry over the decades to distort, discredit, or otherwise impede scientific research and their tireless and cruel marketing campaigns to sow doubt and influence public opinion about smoking. There’s no way to know just how many people wouldn’t have started smoking or how many more would have quit by now. The point is, it’s reasonable to assume it would be less if the truth were known, and it’s wrong when even one person gets sick or dies when corporate greed prevents them from having the best information to make informed decisions about their health.

The Match That Set Their Pants on Fire

The genesis of the greatest war on science ever declared by the tobacco industry was published in 448 US newspapers in 258 cities [2] on January 4, 1954 [3]. It was a full-page declaration created by the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton titled “A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers” (Figure 1). It outlined the rationale of the American tobacco industry for doubting the current smoking research and included their ‘pledge’ of assistance to the scientific research community in understanding the health effects of smoking. It’s been estimated that the advertisement reached 43.2 million people [2]. Imagine the thoughts of readers seeing this in their morning paper while having a cigarette with their coffee. “Wow. Cigarette makers really care about my health. Look at all the trouble and expense they went to. If they and other experts are skeptical about the effects of smoking, there must be something to it.”

Figure : The “A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers” advertisement run by major tobacco companies in over 400 US newspapers on January 4, 1954 [2].

Companies hire public relations firms all the time to help establish and maintain their image. But looking back at this advertisement today, it reads like a coded message hiding something sinister. On the surface, the tobacco companies appear concerned, professional, cooperative, and dedicated to understanding and answering questions about smoking and health. But beneath the words is hidden a comprehensive plan to attack and manipulate the science about smoking. The ad is a cloak they use to hide their true intentions. This ad is part of the planning that goes into using the well-established practice of social engineering to manipulate the thinking and behavior of society [4].

With the help of Hill & Knowlton, the tobacco industry realized their attack on the truth would not be effective through advertising alone. They had to take control of the conversation about smoking from inside the domain of researchers. Asserting themselves as research authorities would also fuel their ability to control the discussion within the media.

Reading Between the Lines

Check out the final statement in the ad which is shown below. It sounds all nice and altruistic, but this sentence represents a declaration of all-out war on the truth about smoking.

"This statement is being issued because we believe the people are entitled to know where we stand on this matter and what we intend to do about it[2]."

Knowing what we know now, let’s analyze this sentence based on the hidden strategy the tobacco industry and their public relations firm had already devised before they ran the newspaper ad.

Where do they stand? They are defiant, unethical, and without empathy toward other people when it comes to the effects of smoking on health. They have to assume this stance to further their cause in the face of the compelling scientific evidence at the time linking smoking with cancer and other diseases [5].

What they intend to do about it (the public concern about the effects of smoking on health)? They formed the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC) whose purpose was to cast doubt on scientific studies showing the negative health effects of tobacco. [6] The committee used strategies such as funding studies in which they knew the outcome would be favorable for smoking and inventing conflicts of interest for the researchers involved in the objective studies critical of smoking. The TIRC also directed a large amount of research funding toward understanding the science of cancer but not as it related to tobacco and cigarette smoking. By doing this, the TIRC (which was funded by tobacco companies) avoided criticism of serving the interests of their own industry. The TIRC has been called, “…one of the most intensive efforts by an industry to derail independent science in modern history…[6].”

Another of the tobacco industry’s proactive efforts was to create a scientific advisory board (SAB) for the TIRC made up of “…scientists disinterested in the cigarette industry [3].” This is a deceptive description of the people Hill & Knowlton actually recruited for the board. SAB members included researchers who were the most vocal and visible skeptics of cigarette studies at the time and many were smokers themselves [6]. On top of this, part of the SABs role was continually promoting the positive value of skepticism in scientific research. As time went on, the TIRC funded more research and drew more academic/research skeptics on board.

In 2002, researchers at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York reviewed statements made by individual tobacco companies, through the TIRC, and documents on tobacco industry websites since the publication of the “Frank Statement” to determine if, and to what extent, the tobacco industry lived up to the promises they made  in 1954 [2]. They measured the effectiveness of industry efforts by reviewing public polling data reflecting smoker’s beliefs about smoking and disease and comparing the results to what was promised. What they found is not surprising. They concluded from the data that the tobacco companies did not fulfill any of the promises they made to the public and the public still is misinformed about smoking and the health issues it causes. In addition, the institute’s work found that even in the early 1950s, some tobacco industry scientists accepted that cigarette smoking was unsafe yet continued working to change public perceptions to the contrary. The authors quote one scientist at RJ Reynolds stating in 1953 that the evidence that smoking is a health risk was “overwhelming” and only “scant” evidence existed challenging it.

Figure : Executives from the tobacco industry testifying before Congress in 1998 [7]. All seven stated under oath they did not believe smoking cigarettes is addictive. Using the word “believe” prevented them from being indicted for perjury in a subsequent investigation.

This is Not Normal

In other words, the “frank statement” made to smokers in the 1954 newspaper ad translates to the tobacco industry doesn’t care about the truth (other than burying it) or your health and they will deceive you and manipulate your reality to keep you addicted to smoking. It’s important to keep in mind that although this advertisement was published over 60 years ago, it is still a driving force in the strategy of tobacco companies to keep smokers and the general public ignorant, skeptical, and addicted. Interestingly, agencies in the US government are adopting the same strategy to further their current policy efforts [7].

If you want to quit smoking, add this thought to your arsenal of defense against misinformation - It’s one thing when a company markets their product truthfully and you understand how awesome it is and want to buy it. Normally, products that are a danger to our health are banned and taken off the market. So, why are cigarettes still legal? When you have a product that is dangerous, addictive, and expensive and you want to stay in business and make a buttload of money, you resort to tactics that have to be disguised as something else. The “frank statement” is one of the disguises worn by the tobacco industry.


[1] “Tobacco,” World Health Organization. [Online]. Available: http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/tobacco. [Accessed: 02-Aug-2018].

[2] K. M. Cummings, C. P. Morley, and A. Hyland, “Failed promises of the cigarette industry and its effect on consumer misperceptions about the health risks of smoking,” Tobacco Control, vol. 11, no. suppl 1, pp. i110–i117, Mar. 2002.

[3] “A Frank Statement - Wikipedia.” [Online]. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Frank_Statement. [Accessed: 26-Jul-2018].

[4] C. Hadnagy, Social Engineering: The Art of Human Hacking. John Wiley & Sons, 2010.

[5] R. Doll and A. B. Hill, “Lung Cancer and Other Causes of Death in Relation to Smoking,” Br Med J, vol. 2, no. 5001, pp. 1071–1081, Nov. 1956.

[6] A. M. Brandt, “Inventing Conflicts of Interest: A History of Tobacco Industry Tactics,” Am J Public Health, vol. 102, no. 1, pp. 63–71, Jan. 2012.

[7] E. Atkin, “The EPA Is Acting Like Big Tobacco,” The New Republic, 26-Apr-2018.