Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Tobacco Industry as Disease Vector

A review of The Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition

Part II

The famous Surgeon General’s Report of 1964, officially warning Americans about the dangers of smoking, and publicizing the cancer connection, is typically seen as a triumphal moment in American medical history. But according to Stanford history professor Robert Proctor in his book, The Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition, the report was “flawed in a number of interesting respects.” [The author, above, with paraphernalia] For one thing, members of the advisory committee consulting on the report, many of them congressman friendly to the tobacco cause, succeeded in their attempts to have smoking referred to as a “habit” rather than as addiction—a shameful Orwellian turn that went uncorrected for 25 years.

Meanwhile, the industry continued to fund new institutes, and continued to give out research grants for “red herring” research. As an example, the highest-ranking officer of the American Heart Association received money from one of the industry’s fraudulent research arms.

As late as the early 80s, most smokers believed they suffered from a bad habit, rather than an addiction—even though a majority of them wished they didn’t smoke. That is an odd kind of consumer “choice.” Cigarette makers have spent millions to perpetuate this myth. Proctor views tobacco industry executives and lawyers as a unique form of disease vector, spreading the pernicious health consequences of smoking across the globe.

The 2008 World Health Organization (WHO) Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic fleshes out this metaphor, suggesting that all epidemics have a means of contagion, “a vector that spreads disease and death. For the tobacco epidemic, the vector is not a virus, bacterium or other microorganisms—it is an industry and its business strategy.”

In an email exchange, I asked Professor Proctor to expand on this notion of a disease vector:

“We tend to divide "communicable" from "non-communicable" diseases,” Proctor told me, “when the reality is that many "non-communicable" diseases are in fact spread by communications.”

Examples? “Through ignorance and propaganda, for example, which can spread like a virus,” Proctor wrote. “We don't count the anthropogenic communications, oddly enough, even though these can be just as dangerous, and just as deadly. And just as preventable--by changing our exposure environments.”

In a recent article for Tobacco Control, Proctor laid out how the calculus of the disease vector plays out. We know, for example, that smoking will cause roughly 6 million deaths in 2015. And about a third of those will be from lung cancer. We know that 25 acres of tobacco plants will result in about 10 lung cancer deaths per year, starting 20 or 30 years down the road. Here’s a sick equivalence: “A 40 ft container of the sort shipped overseas or trucked by highway houses 10 million cigarettes, which means that each container will cause about 10 deaths.” Proctor works out the numbers for the value of a human life:

“Cigarette companies make about a penny in profit for every cigarette sold, or about $10,000 for every million cigarettes purchased. Since there is one death for every million cigarettes sold (or smoked), a tobacco manufacturer will make about $10,000 for every death caused by their products…. The value of a human life to a cigarette manufacturer is therefore about $10,000.” 

Proctor has even produced a “factories of death” chart, illustrating that arguably the world’s most lethal production plant is Philip Morris’s Richmond cigarette facility, which churned out 146 billion cigarettes in 2010, which adds up to about 146,000 deaths per year.

By 1964, researchers at Harvard had already identified the presence of radioactivity in the form of polonium 210 in cigarette smoke, and the cry went up for safety. As for the notion of safer cigarettes, Proctor says all cigarette filters function the same way—“basically like drinking through a somewhat thinner straw.” He goes even further, arguing that “filters have reduced smoke particle size, producing cancers deeper in the lungs, making them harder to identify and harder to treat.” (Scientists determined that the radiation source was the newer “superphosphate” fertilizers being used heavily on tobacco plants.)

 Next came mandated “tar and nicotine numbers,” which turned out to be misleading measures obtained from smoking robots. Then, “an opportunity presented itself to game the system, as we find in the brilliant trick of ventilation.” Manufacturers pricked tiny holes in the paper near the mouthpiece of cigarettes brands like Carlton and True, which consumers got around by covering the holes with fingers or with “lipping” behavior. “Low tars were a fraud, just as “lights” would be,” Proctor writes. Smokers just smoked harder, or differently, or more frequently. In 1983, pharmacologist Neal Benowitz at UCSF broke the official news in the New England Journal of Medicine: Smokers got just as much nicotine, whether they smoked high-, low-, filtered, unfiltered, regular, light, or ultra-light.  The industry itself had known this for more than 20 years. “Nicotine in the actual rod was rarely allowed to drop below about 10 milligrams per cigarette,” Proctor asserts, “and no cigarette was ever commercially successful with much less than this amount.” (A Philip Morris psychologist compared nicotine-free cigarettes to “sex without orgasm.”)

Indeed, almost every design modification put in place by tobacco companies over the past century, from flue-curing to filters, has served to make cigarettes deadlier than before. “Talk of ‘safer cigarettes’ is rather like talking about safer terrorism, or safer smallpox, or safer forms of drowning,” Proctor concludes.

And the industry testing continues. The point of tobacco-sponsored research is not simply to discredit an individual researcher’s work, but to create an aggregate bias in the pattern of research—a lot of “noise” in the signal. In other words, “you basically fund lots of research to dispute a hazard, then cite this same research to say that lots of scholars dispute it.” We are told about “mucociliary escalators,” which dredge the tar up and out of smokers’ lungs. We learn that “a rabbit will scream if nicotine is introduced into the eye.” We read excerpts from anguished letters to tobacco companies: “Do you suppose if I continue to smoke Camel Ultra Light Cigarettes and I should develop cancer it will be ‘Ultra Light Cancer?’”

Proctor brings us up to date: Harm reduction, he writes, has become the industry’s new mantra. “The companies now want us to believe that less hazardous products can be and are being made and marketed.” Proctor thinks harm reduction “may end up causing even greater harm” if products touted as “safer” make smokers less likely to quit. As for public health campaigns, “consumers are encouraged to stop consuming,” Proctor writes, “but producers are never discouraged from producing.” Or, as Louis Pasteur once wrote: “When meditating over a disease, I never think of finding a remedy for it, but, instead, a means of preventing it.”

So, what comes next? A glimpse of the future may already be here, in the form of cinnamon- and mint-flavored Camel Orbs, “which look like Tic Tac candy and contain about a milligram of nicotine in a highly freebased form.”

As for the industry’s success in corrupting scientists and academics through various means, the story is just as bad as you think it is: “It would take many thousands of pages to chronicle the full extent of Big Tobacco’s penetration of academia; the scale of such collaborations is simply too vast. From 1995 to 2007 alone, University of California researchers received at least 108 awards totaling $37 million from tobacco manufacturers….”

Part II of III.

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1 comment:

Jim Peake said...

Somehow I find that tobacco and sugar seem to get a ton of lip service from the government. While tobacco has a fairly bad reputation sugar does not as of yet. It seems more and more we dig deeper on these and other indigestible water and food items most of them seem to be bad for us. Very few seem to ask why? I think we need to follow the money.

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