Internal documents reveal tobacco industry surveillance of public health groups

By Maureen McInaney

The tobacco industry engaged in aggressive intelligence gathering to combat tobacco control groups—including the use of intermediaries to obtain materials under false pretenses, sending public relations spies to public health organization meetings, and covertly taping strategy sessions, according to an analysis of internal tobacco industry documents by Ruth E. Malone, assistant professor of nursing and health policy in the UCSF School of Nursing. The analysis appears in the June, 2002 issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
Malone’s research shows that, beginning with the inception of STAT (Stop Teenage Addiction to Tobacco) in 1985 and continuing through the mid 1990s, RJ Reynolds and Philip Morris used public relations agencies and private consultants to closely monitor the activities of STAT and INFACT (formerly the Infant Formula Action Coalition). Both groups, referred to as “anti’s” in the documents, were active in drawing public and media attention to tobacco industry behaviors.

“Although it is not uncommon for companies to gather intelligence about competitors, it is surprising to see such aggressive activities aimed at obstructing the efforts of public health groups,” said Malone.

According to industry documents, a Tobacco Institute (TI) plan, proposed in 1988, emphasized the goal of “[keeping] the Institute in the driver’s seat” by gaining “knowledge of anti-smoking announcements before the fact.”

Documents show that tobacco companies kept secret lists of control advocates and researchers and sought to use intelligence to try to discredit them. A 1989 INFOTAB (the Industry’s international intelligence and research agency) report, A Guide for Dealing with Anti-Tobacco Pressure Groups, advised executives to “discredit the often imported activists of the [tobacco control] coalition - ideally through third parties.”

The Fleishman Hillard public relations agency sent regular intelligence reports to RJ Reynolds, including copies of STAT’s Tobacco and Youth Reporter. According to industry documents, the Burson-Marsteller agency assured Philip Morris executives that they could conduct research on INFACT “without any mention of the [tobacco industry] client,” using “third parties,” to anonymously obtain information.

The documents also reveal that one Fleishamn Hillard representative (and possibly others) secretly tape recorded sessions of a 1992 STAT meeting, said Malone. “The tobacco industry spy’s report clearly discusses how difficult it was to keep the tape recorder hidden. In addition to violating the rules of the meeting, this taping also violated Massachusetts state law and the code of ethics for business intelligence professionals,” she said.

Malone’s analysis of internal letters, memos, reports, and other documents released as a result of the Minessota Tobacco Settlement and other legal cases also reveals that the industry was concerned about any activity that focused attention on its corporate practices, but especially the prospect of anti-industry documentaries that might be aimed at young adult audiences. Malone’s research was supported by the National Cancer Institute and the California Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program.

In a related paper in the June, 2002 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, Stanton Glantz, PhD, UCSF professor of medicine and a faculty member in the UCSF Institute for Health Policy Studies, concludes from an examination of tobacco industry documents that the industry’s youth smoking prevention programs are not effective and often are counterproductive, doing more harm than good for tobacco control.