Big Tobacco and the Historians | The Nation


Big Tobacco and the Historians

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Kyriakoudes, who has faced a similar campaign of harassment and intimidation, is in a more vulnerable position than Proctor. He's not a full professor or a member of the National Academy; he's an associate professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi. He's published one book and is writing a second, Why We Smoked: Culture, History, and the North American Origins of the Global Cigarette Epidemic. He's also published many articles in scholarly journals--notably, research about tobacco advertising and about historians as tobacco experts.

Jon Wiener responds to criticism of his article by J. Matthew Gallman, of the University of Florida, in a web-only letters exchange.


About the Author

Jon Wiener
Jon Wiener
Jon Wiener teaches US history at UC Irvine. His most recent book is How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey...

Kyriakoudes was also harassed over the University of Florida grad student researchers. His offense: sending Proctor the deposition--which is public information--in which Proctor found the names of the students. Tobacco attorneys told a judge in Broward County that this was grounds for excluding Kyriakoudes as an expert witness. The judge rejected that motion in October. But, Kyriakoudes told me, "since last January [2009] I've been deposed by the other side at least seven or eight times." The tobacco attorneys' strategy, it appears, is to make it so time-consuming for him to continue that he will conclude it's not worth it. And it's had an effect: "I've cut back a lot of what I've been doing," Kyriakoudes told me in mid-February. "They hit me pretty hard, making it difficult to do my research. So I've pulled out of cases. I cut back to one or two trials a year. Harassment is effective."

One more historian has testified against Big Tobacco: Allan Brandt. But he testified only once. His 2007 book, The Cigarette Century, won several awards. Brandt is now dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard and a professor of the history of medicine and the history of science. He has not testified in a case since U.S. v. Philip Morris in 2003. When I asked why, he said, "That case appealed to me because it was the United States bringing a case against all the tobacco companies, a case on behalf of the American public, a historic case." But "it's enormously time-consuming and labor-intensive to testify," he said. And, as he explained in his book, "I had no interest in becoming an expert witness.... I did not want my scholarship to be dismissed as 'advocacy.'"

Brandt changed his mind, he explains in his book, after he saw the arguments offered by historians working for the tobacco companies, people like Lacy Ford of the University of South Carolina, who "had published no research at all" on the subject. That left Brandt with a feeling of "disgust." (Ford declined to comment for this story.) And he was "appalled" at the defense of tobacco companies offered by Kenneth Ludmerer, a historian of medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, who was an expert for Philip Morris. Brandt considered Ludmerer's testimony to be bordering on "historical malpractice" because he "has never published on the history of tobacco, on lung cancer, on the impact of tobacco on health, or on the industry's claims about smoking and health." So Brandt agreed to testify for the government in U.S. v. Philip Morris.

When I asked Ludmerer about Brandt's criticism of his testimony in U.S. v. Philip Morris, he replied, "Where is civility in this country? These ad hominem attacks are injurious. I had coronary artery bypass surgery in 2005. I'm sure a lot of the disease came from tension from the comments people made about my testimony. I've never done anything other than serve the public interest." He added, "I was hoping the tobacco industry would lose." But then why did he testify for the industry? "I considered it honorable to stand up for doing history properly," he answered. I asked how much he had been paid by Big Tobacco for working as an expert witness. "Maybe $500,000," he said. (Patricia Cohen of the New York Times reported in 2003 that he had earned "more than $550,000.")

Brandt decided not to testify in any other cases because, he said, "I found my time on the stand highly frustrating." The cross-examination and the media coverage left him feeling "a bit bruised." And in the meantime, Bill Clinton, whose Justice Department brought the suit, had left office and the new Bush administration ordered the government trial team to reduce its claim for damages from $280 billion to $10 billion--a tremendous victory for Big Tobacco, which was celebrated on Wall Street. (In late February the Obama Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to restore the $280 billion penalty.)

Nevertheless, Judge Kessler's 2006 decision was a monumental one: the tobacco companies "suppressed research, they destroyed documents, they manipulated the use of nicotine so as to increase and perpetuate addiction...and they abused the legal system in order to achieve their goal--to make money." Brandt felt vindicated but unhappy that the claims for remedies had been vastly scaled back by the Bush White House.

Brandt, Kyriakoudes and Proctor are proud of their work and let everyone know about it, while those on the other side never mention their work for Big Tobacco on their faculty websites or online CVs. Lacy Ford doesn't, and neither does Michael Schaller at the University of Arizona or Kenneth Ludmerer at Washington University. James Kirby Martin's CV at the University of Houston website says he has "consulted on various historical-related product liability and health issues" but doesn't say which products, or which side, he has worked for.

As the University of Florida events demonstrate, a lot of the actual research for the tobacco attorneys is done not by their historian experts but by grad student assistants. Birte Pfleger was one. She was working on her dissertation at the University of California, Irvine (where I teach), in 2002 when an e-mail was circulated from John Snetsinger, a professor at California Polytechnic, San Luis Obispo, seeking a research assistant and offering $25 an hour. At the time, Pfleger told me, that "sounded like an awful lot of money." She took the job.

The assignment was the standard one: find articles in the local newspapers about the dangers of smoking, starting in 1950. "We found ads that said smoking was glamorous and sexy and fun, but he said he didn't want those," she remembered. "He just wanted articles that said smoking was bad for your health." At that point, she recalled, "we started wondering who he was and what he was doing with this. We asked him, but he never really explained it."

I figured out what case Pfleger had been working on and told her about it: a lawsuit against Philip Morris brought by Betty Bullock of Newport Beach, who was dying of lung cancer and eventually won a big punitive damages award. "I would not have done the work if I had known what it was for," Pfleger then said. "I'm relieved that the jury rejected the tobacco industry's argument." (Snetsinger did not respond to interview requests.)

In Bullock's trial, for which Snetsinger had been deposed in 2002, the jury awarded her an awesome $28 billion. That set a record as the single largest judgment against Philip Morris. The company appealed, and the court reduced the $28 billion to
$28 million. The company appealed that too, but a California appeals court concluded in 2006 that "Philip Morris's misconduct was extremely reprehensible" and that "the vast 'scale' and 'profitability'" of the misconduct justified an award of $28 million--to Betty Bullock's daughter Jodie, since Betty had died of smoking-related causes in 2003. The company appealed again on another issue and won a retrial in 2009, which ended recently with an award of $13.8 million. Philip Morris attorneys have said they will appeal that verdict as well.

Is it true that "everybody knew" in the 1950s and '60s that smoking could kill you? A consensus of medical opinion had formed by the mid-1950s that smoking caused lung cancer, as Allan Brandt shows in The Cigarette Century. But the tobacco industry denied that fact and did everything it could to create doubt about the health effects of smoking. It paid doctors and scientists to say there was "no proof" and suggested through advertising that smoking was glamorous and sexy, rebellious yet deeply American. In the late 1940s, for example, "More Doctors Smoke Camels" was a ubiquitous print ad. Despite the surgeon general's 1964 report that smoking causes cancer, the Marlboro Man indelibly linked smoking and masculinity-in-the-mountains for a generation of Americans.

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