Ten years ago the image of the tobacco industry stank like a dirty ashtray. As the annual death toll from tobacco-related diseases neared the 400,000 mark, many Americans were disgusted by the industry's continuing denial of the damage and suffering it caused.
That disgust was heightened when, in congressional hearings held in the spring of 1994, the CEOs of the seven largest U.S. tobacco companies denied, under oath, that cigarettes cause disease and that nicotine is addictive.
Soon after the hearings, industry documents and whistleblowers exposed the CEOs as liars. Outrage peaked when it was revealed that nicotine levels in cigarettes are adjusted to enhance their addictive effect, and that children were indeed the intended targets of the industry's billion-dollar ad campaigns.
The 1998 Master Settlement Agreement came about in part because the industry knew that its blighted image made it vulnerable to huge punitive awards by juries. There was also the enduring threat of tighter legal regulation, driven by widespread contempt for the industry's duplicity.
In response, the industry redoubled its efforts to create an impression of good corporate citizenship. This meant giving more money to the arts, to shelters for battered women, to minority-group organizations, and to universities. All tax-deductible, of course.
Philip Morris's grant of $15 million to Duke University for research on smoking cessation is a recent example. If this deal sounds fishy, that's because it is. Did the company suddenly develop a conscience that dictates self-immolation?
Not at all. The grant is part of an ongoing, industry-wide public relations campaign, the purpose of which is not to end smoking but to keep the tobacco companies in business as long as possible.
But what could be wrong with university researchers using tobacco money to study smoking cessation? Two things: It helps a morally bankrupt industry maintain a front of respectability; and it diverts attention from policies that we already know are effective.
For instance, we know that the best way to reduce teen smoking is to raise the price of cigarettes. In North Carolina, the excise tax on cigarettes (five cents per pack) is the second lowest in the country, and so we have the opportunity to save thousands of lives simply by raising the tax to the national average.
So will Philip Morris or RJ Reynolds fund research to find out why this message does not get through to legislators? Probably not, since the answer would point to the industry's persistent lobbying against tax increases on its products.
We know that pro-health messages aimed at teens do less to deter smoking than ads that expose the industry's marketing scams. Because such ads are so effective, the industry fought to ensure that Settlement money could not be used to create them. Even today the industry tries to quash anti-smoking ads that criticize the industry itself.
We also know that smokefree workplace laws are an effective way to get adults to quit smoking. But the tobacco industry does not give grants to find better ways to get smokefree workplace laws passed. In fact, it has done just the opposite by funding front groups to dispute the fact that secondhand smoke is a health hazard.
The reality behind the industry's new image is evident in what it spends on marketing. According to a Federal Trade Commission report issued last year, the industry spends over $11 billion a year to promote its products. That means the Philip Morris grant to Duke is less than the industry spends on marketing in one day.
Through its sponsorship of sports and cultural events, its point-of-sale displays, its product placement in television and films, its promotional giveaways, and its direct mailings, the industry tries to do what it must do to survive: seduce young people into buying products that, if used as intended, cause disease and death.
It's the same old story.
What's changed, in the wake of the Master Settlement Agreement, is the degree to which institutions have become addicted to tobacco money.
State governments now fill potholes and budget gaps with Settlement funds that were meant to be used for health education. To its shame and to the detriment of our children, North Carolina spends only about 4% of its Settlement revenue on tobacco use prevention.
It's not surprising that tobacco companies still resist life-saving policies that threaten their profits. That's what they've always done. But scientists and public officials should not be complicit.
Helping tobacco companies fashion an image of respectability violates scientific integrity. Failing to do everything possible to minimize the industry's harm betrays public trust.
Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at MLSchwalbe@nc.rr.com.