Internal documents reveal tobacco industry strategy to undermine unwelcome research

By Wallace Ravven

Philip Morris tobacco company launched a hidden campaign in the 1990s to change
the standards of scientific proof needed to demonstrate that secondhand smoke
was dangerous, according to an analysis of internal tobacco industry documents
by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). The
“sound science” standards they promoted through a variety of industry groups
would have made proving the hazards of secondhand smoke virtually impossible,
according to the study.

The tobacco industry strategy involved a seemingly noble calling for “sound
science”, while rejecting so-called “junk science” on secondhand smoke that
actually threatened the industry’s business interests.

Working through lawyers and public relations firms, Philip Morris sought to
organize other industries to participate in the “sound science” movement,
masking its own involvement. It also hired public relations and marketing firms
to help form The Advancement for Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), developed to
look like a grassroots organization of scientists and policymakers. Phillip
Morris hoped TASSC would seem like an independent body rejecting evidence that
secondhand smoke caused significant lung cancer and heart disease risk,
according to the analysis of the documents.

In Europe, where secondhand smoke restrictions had not yet been put in place,
Philip Morris promoted a set of standards originally proposed by the Chemical
Manufacturers Association called “Good Epidemiology Practices.” By modifying
the proposal and developing new opportunities to introduce it, Philip Morris
sought to establish an arbitrary threshold for identifying health risk from
secondhand smoke - a threshold higher than what scientists had found for
secondhand smoke.

The proposal would have revoked conclusions that an environmental toxin such as
secondhand smoke was a public health problem. This effort was particularly
focused on undermining a large European epidemiologic study of passive smoking
and lung cancer being conducted by the International Agency for Research on
Cancer at the time, the researchers found.

The analysis appears in the November issue of The American Journal of Public

First author is Elisa K. Ong, MD, a medical resident at Santa Clara Valley
Medical Center who conducted the research while a medical student working in
the Institute for Health Policy Studies at UCSF. Her co-author is Stanton
Glantz, PhD, a core faculty member of the Institute and a professor of medicine
at UCSF.

Between 1994 and 2000, seemingly independent seminars involving other
industries and issues on the so-called “Good Epidemiology Practices” (GEP) were
conducted in the United States, United Kingdom, European Union and China, yet
in all cases Philip Morris was connected to these events, the documents show.

Essentially, Philip Morris appropriated the “sound science” concept to shape
the standards of epidemiology and to prevent increased smoking restrictions,
the authors state.

“Phillip Morris has gone beyond ‘creating doubt’ and ‘controversy’ about the
scientific evidence…to attempting to change the scientific standards of proof,” they write.

The approach, the report states, ignores the fact that a comprehensive
assessment of risk involves considering all the evidence related to a toxin,
not just the epidemiology.

“While every practicing scientist agrees that scientific work should be
rigorously done, the scientific, public health and regulatory community need to
be more aware that the ‘sound science’ and ‘GEP’ movement is not simply an
indigenous effort from within the profession…but also reflects sophisticated
public relations campaigns controlled by industry executives and lawyers to
manipulate the scientific standards of proof for the corporate interests of
their clients,” the authors conclude.

The research was supported by the National Cancer Institute and the Richard and
Rhoda Goldman Fund.