Ethics on technical communication: the U.S. Tobacco Industry

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Nowadays it is well-known that smoking is the main cause of lung cancer. Not so long time ago the tobacco industry denied this relationship and diverted all the responsibilities they might have on public's health.

Ethics on technical communication, by Paul Dombrowski focuses on the United States of America. Dombrowski shows how this was accomplished through written communication, more precisely technical documents that the tobacco industry (the Industry) in the USA used to resist to acknowledge its ethical responsibilities. All of that in a chronological order, where you can see how the industry varies its strategy towards how to react and respond against the public and scientific opinion over time.

The book shows how technical and scientific information was manipulated and misrepresented by the Industry both towards the public, the government and the scientific community. The Industry's aim was to evade technical responsibilities.

There is a strong relation between smoking and lung cancer and every year more and more studies reinforce the idea. The specific mechanisms by which smoking causes cancer are not known; we don't know the genetic factors that make one person more susceptible to cancer than other person; we don't know how the chemicals in tobacco interact among themselves… “just” that they cause cancer.

These lack of knowing these microscopic mechanisms was used by the Industry to defend itself from the scientific studies that claimed tobacco was causally relatd to cancer. Why a cause and not a coincidence?

How did the Industry fight against these claims 50 years ago and how it does now?

On the 1950s, important medical research reports where published. This reports linked smoking and lung cancer, and it was a major concern for population. The response of the Industry was to arrange a meeting of all the chief executives but one of the major tobacco companies in 1953. They hired a public relations firm (Hill and Knowlton) to launch a pro-cigarette campaign.

Hill and Knowlton memorandum, December 1953
“These developments [the medical studies] have confronted the industry with a serious problem of public relations”

With this memorandum it can be stated that the Industry is not concerned about the medical studies problem as a health but rather as a public relations problem. Apart of that, they state that there is not proof that smoking leads to lung cancer. Technically it might be true (there is no statistical evidence - early 50s), but the question is whether is it ethically correct to represent this lack of absoluteness this way i.e. choosing to see what do these studies suggest a very real hazard instead of seeing that as an untrue connection.

The firm launched a strike of advertisements in 449 major newspapers in all the country. Not only to discourage the recent studies but also to announce the creation of the Council for Tobacco Research (CTR) which would “pledge aid and assistance to the research effort into all phases of tobacco use and health” and whose research would be conducted by “scientists of unimpeachable integrity and national repute”.

Old Gold cigarettes advertisement published the same day that A Frank Statement.
"America, we love you! […] Thanks again for putting your trust in the cigarette made by tobacco men… not medicine men...”

By early 1960, the accusations kept going. U.S. Surgeon General (executive chief of the U.S. health system) and David C. Kessler (head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) lashed with an editorial dispatched to the Industry. They referred them as a “rogue industry, unwilling to abide by ordinary ethical business rules and social standards […] The tobacco industry has intentionally marketed lethal products and deliberately hidden their well-known risks. These actions are morally reprehensible”.

Tobacco companies continued using the same strategy as before: distract the attention and discourage the scientific and medical studies. By this time, however, the Industry could only find a few reputable scientists willing to defend their position.

Memorandum from a lawyer from Williamson Tobacco Co.
“Whatever qualifications we may assert to minimize the impact of the report, we must face the fact that a responsible and qualified group of previously non-committed scientists have spoken. One would suppose we wouldn't repeat Dr, Little's1 oft reiterated “not proven”.

On 1970 the public is now not only concerned about the damage to the smokers' health but also to the nonsmokers one. Thus, the public and the government moved forward and started banning smoking in public areas such as government offices and transport vehicles. Tobacco industry kept stressing that there was controversy and disagreement upon the smoking and lung cancer relation. The fact is that the only scientists that resisted accepting that relation was because they didn't knew the mechanism.

White paper on this topic on April 18th 1979.
“The tobacco industry acknowledges that there is a controversy over many aspects of the general problems of smoking and health. There is disagreement [...]”

By mid 70s the Industry started to close down several of their research operations.
Later on, by 1980, lawyers of the tobacco industries were in charge of controlling which research proposals would be approved, terminated, how reports were written, and which ones would be published. This way, under the attorney-client privileges, the public and the government could be kept in the dark and the industry would be able to claim ignorance of any hazard derived from smoking.

Nowadays, after some leaks and documents coming to light, the Industry is starting to take their toll on all the health responsibilities they didn't face. Even some U.S. states are taking legal actions so that the tobacco companies pay part of the public healthy services needed as a consequence of the Industry's unethical behaviors.

The purpose of the Industry was to ignore all the ethical issues of its business. Not only they did so by not facing the claims and facts of the scientific community but rather deviating that claims' attention and hiding information that wasn't convenient for the business.

Not every lie is unethical; when this lie puts people in danger and make they suffer it is. The business; the money; tat was the only reason why the tobacco industry was (is?) unethical.

It is hard to imagine a ethical behavior of a tobacco company with all this scientific evidence showing the harmful effects. It's difficult to justify the promotion, advertising and selling of these products.  And be noted that although being the principal figure, industry is not the only agent. What happens with the media (newspaper) willing to put tobacco ads? What happens with Tobacco Shops and supermarkets? Not to mention the lawyers figure supporting the Industry attitudes.

Charles Harper,
R.J. Reynolds Chairman2, 1996
“If children don't like to be in a smoky room, they'll leave. At some point, they begin to crawl.”


1. Clarence Cook "C.C." Little was an American genetics, cancer, and tobacco researcher and academic administrator. He was the Scientific Director of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee.
2. The R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (RJR) is the second-largest tobacco company in the U.S.

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