Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Hidden Story of How Big Tobacco Invented Freebasing

Review of The Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition.

Part I

It’s easy to think of cigarettes, and the machinations of the tobacco industry, as “old news.” But in his revealing 737-page book, The Golden Holocaust, based on 70 million pages of documents from the tobacco industry, Stanford professor Robert N. Proctor demonstrates otherwise. He demonstrates how Big Tobacco invented freebasing. He shows how they colluded in misleading the public about “safe” alternatives like filters, “low-tar,” and “ultra-lights.” We discover in Lorillard’s archives an explanation of menthol’s appeal to African Americans: It is all part of a desire by “negroes” to mask a “genetic body odor.” Radioactive isotopes were isolated in cigarette smoke, and evidence of the find was published, as early as 1953. He reveals that the secret ingredient in Kent’s “micronite filter” was asbestos. And he charges that the “corruption of science” lies behind the industry’s drive to continue its deadly trade. “Collaboration with the tobacco industry,” writes Proctor, “is one of the most deadly abuses of scholarly integrity in modern history.”

Half of all cigarette smokers will die from smoking—about a billion people this century, if present trends continue. In the U.S., this translates into roughly two jumbo jets crashing, killing everyone onboard, once daily. Cigarettes kill more people than bullets. The world smokes 6 trillion of them each year. (The Chinese alone account for about 2 trillion). Some people believe that tobacco represents a problem (more or less) solved, at least in the developed West.

All of this represents a continuing triumph for the tobacco industry. The aiders and abettors of tobacco love to portray the tobacco story as “old news.” But as Stanford Professor Robert M. Proctor writes in The Golden Holocaust, his exhaustive history of tobacco science and industry: “Global warming denialists cut their teeth on tobacco tactics, fighting science with science, creating doubt, fostering ignorance.”

Checking in at 737 pages, The Golden Holocaust is nobody’s idea of a light read, and at times its organization seems clear only to the author. But what a treasure trove of buried facts and misleading science Proctor has uncovered, thanks to more than 70 million pages of industry documents now online ( as part of the Master Settlement Agreement of 1998. Once the material was finally digitized and available online, scholars like Proctor could employ full-text optical character recognition for detailed searchability. Ironically, this surreal blizzard of documentation was meant to obscure meaningful facts, not make them readily available, but tobacco executives seem not to have factored in digital technology when they turned over the material.

The single most important technological breakthrough in the history of the modern cigarette was flue-curing, which lowers the pH of tobacco smoke enough to make it inhalable. The reason few people inhale cigars, and very few used to inhale cigarettes, is that without some help, burning tobacco has a pH too high for comfortable inhalation. It makes you cough. But flue-curing lowered pH levels, allowing for a “milder,” less alkaline smoke that even women and children could tolerate.

World War I legitimized cigarettes in a major way. Per capita consumption in the U.S. almost tripled from 1914 to 1919, which Proctor considers “one of the most rapid increases in smoking ever recorded.” After World War II, the Marshall Plan shipped a staggering $1 billion worth of tobacco and other “food-related items.” (The U.S. Senator who blustered the loudest for big postwar tobacco shipments to Europe was A. Willis Robertson of Virginia, the father of televangelist Pat Robertson.)

The military, as we know, has historically been gung-ho on cigarettes. And Proctor claims that “the front shirt pocket that now adorns the dress of virtually every American male, for example, was born from an effort to make a place to park your cigarette pack.” In addition, cigarette makers spent a great deal of time and effort convincing automakers and airline manufacturers to put ashtrays into the cars and planes they sold. Ashtrays were built into seats in movie theaters, barbershops, and lecture halls. There was even an ashtray built into the U.S. military’s anti-Soviet SAGE computer in the 50s.

In the early 50s, research by Ernest Wynder in the U.S. and Angel Roffo in Argentina produced the first strong evidence that tobacco tars caused cancer in mice. Roffo in particular seemed convinced that tobacco caused lung cancer, that it was the tar rather than the nicotine, and that the main culprits were the aromatic hydrocarbons such as benzpyrene. Curiously enough, it was influential members of Germany’s Third Reich in the 40s who first took the possibility of a link seriously. Hans Reiter, a powerful figure in public health in Germany, said in a 1941 speech that smoking had been linked to human lung cancers through “painstaking observations of individual cases.”

In the December 1953 issue of Cancer Research, Wynder, et al. published a paper demonstrating that “tars extracted from tobacco smoke could induce cancers when painted on the skins of mice.” As it turns out, the tobacco industry already knew it. Executives had funded their own research, while keeping a close eye on outside academic studies, and had been doing so since at least the 30s. In fact, French doctors had been referring to cancers des fumeurs, or smokers’ cancers, since the mid-1800s. All of which knocks the first leg out from under the tobacco industry’s classic position: We didn’t know any stuff about cancer hazards until well into the 1950s.

Only weeks after the Wynder paper was published, tobacco execs went into full conspiracy mode during a series of meetings at the Plaza Hotel in New York, “where the denialist campaign was set in motion.” American Tobacco Company President Paul Hahn issued a press release that came to be known as the “Frank Statement” of 1954. Proctor calls it the “magna carta of the American’s industry’s conspiracy to deny any evidence of tobacco harms.” How, Proctor asks, did science get shackled to the odious enterprise of exonerating cigarettes? The secret was not so much in outright suppression of science, though there was plenty of that: In one memorable action known as the “Mouse House Massacre,” R.J. Reynolds abruptly shut down their internal animal research lab and laid off 26 scientists overnight, after the researchers began obtaining unwelcome results about tobacco smoke. But the true genius of the industry “was rather in using even ‘good’ science, narrowly defined, as a distraction, something to hold up to say, in effect: See how responsible we are?”

Entities like the Council for Tobacco Research engaged in decoy research of this kind. As one tobacco company admitted, “Research must go on and on.”

A good deal of the industry’s research in the 50s and 60s was in fact geared toward reverse engineering competitors’ successes. Consider Marlboro. Every cigarette manufacturer want to know: How did they do it? What was the secret to Marlboro’s success?

As it turns out, they did it by increasing nicotine’s kick. And they accomplished that, in essence, by means of freebasing, a process invented by the cigarette industry. Adding ammonia or some other alkaline compound transforms a molecule of nicotine from its bound salt version to its “free” base, which volatilizes much more easily, providing low-pH smoke easily absorbed by body tissue. And there you have the secret: “The freebasing of cocaine hydrochloride into ‘crack’ is based on a similar chemistry: the cocaine alkaloid is far more potent in its free base form than as a salt, so bicarbonate is used to transform cocaine hydrochloride into chemically pure crack cocaine.” Once other cigarette makers figured out the formula, they too began experimenting with the advantages of an “enhanced alkaline environment.”
(End of Part I)

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