|Home | About | Journals | Submit | Contact Us | Français|
The recent completion of the “first draft” of the human genome was big news because it promised understanding of the causes, treatment, and prevention of human disease. There is, however, another map that holds as much promise for curbing disease: depositories containing millions of pages of previously secret tobacco industry documents. Unlike bacteria, fungi, and viruses that spread disease, however, the tobacco industry employs sophisticated lawyers and public relations experts—and even scientists—to distort the scientific and political process.1,2 These documents give us our first clear understanding of how the tobacco contagion works.
The industry has for decades denied the obvious—that nicotine is addictive, that smoking and second hand smoke cause a wide variety of diseases, and that cigarette advertising recruits children and keeps adults smoking. It has used this wall of rhetoric to provide cover for the actions of politicians designed to protect the tobacco industry at the expense of public health.
In 1998, as part of the settlement of a lawsuit filed by the attorney general of Minnesota, the American tobacco companies were forced to make public 40 million pages of previously secret documents kept in a depository in Minneapolis, and British American Tobacco was forced to do the same in Guildford in the United Kingdom. Later, as part of a settlement of lawsuits by 46 other states led by Washington's attorney general, the American tobacco companies (but not British American Tobacco) agreed to post their documents on the internet (www.tobaccoarchive.com). These, together with other documents produced to a British parliamentary inquiry, form the basis for three papers in BMJ.3–5
Klein and StClair show that both the tobacco industry and the confectionery industry knew that candy cigarettes encourage young children to smoke and that they mounted effective campaigns to hide this truth and distort scientific research to protect the use of this effective promotional device (p362).3 Francey and Chapman document that in 1977 the multinational tobacco companies agreed to “Operation Berkshire” (p371).4 This was a secret plan designed to implement the same conspiracy outside the United States that the 1954 agreement at the Plaza Hotel in New York City did in the United States,1 when executives agreed not to acknowledge the dangers of smoking and to set up a coordinated defence for the industry. Finally, Hastings and MacFadyen show that the industry knew that advertising recruited new smokers and kept people smoking (p366).5
While not earth shattering to people who have observed the tobacco industry over the years, the fact that these conclusions are based on the industry's own words makes them compelling to policymakers, the public, and (at least in the United States) the courts.
Most of the quoted documents so far have come from the Minnesota depository and are now available on the internet. Probably the most important documents, however, are sitting in the British American Tobacco depository in Guildford, where they are nearly impossible to access.
In addition to important information showing that British American Tobacco, like the other tobacco companies, covered up its own research on the dangers of tobacco use and the addictiveness of nicotine, these documents contain information that shocks even hardened anti-tobacco activists: the tobacco companies use smuggling as an integral part of their marketing efforts to enter new markets, control prices, and influence government policies.6 These actions have raised the concern of a parliamentary health select committee7 in the United Kingdom and various law enforcement agencies in the United States and elsewhere.8
Not surprisingly, British American Tobacco has not made it easy for the public to use the Guildford depository. Unlike the Minnesota depository, which is open 12 hours a day, Guildford is open for only six. Unlike Minnesota, which is open to all, Guildford is open to only six people at a time, and all six have to be working together. Unlike Minnesota, which promptly provides copies of material, British American Tobacco takes 4-6 months, then often withholds information behind vague claims that it is “protected material.” Most important, British American Tobacco has refused to place this material on the internet with an adequate index. These actions make it difficult to use this material in research and policymaking and make a mockery of British American Tobacco's agreement to make this material available to the public.
The parliamentary health select committee has called attention to these problems and asked that British American Tobacco make the material as available as the US documents.7 The company acts as if it does not know how to meet this simple request.
It is time for parliament to compel British American Tobacco to produce the entire depository to a neutral party that will promptly make the material available to all on the internet. Doing so will help public health end the man-made epidemic that British American Tobacco and the other tobacco companies are spreading into the developing world. It will force the truth out of the shadows and into the public eye.
Competing interests: SG has been given honoraria for speaking on issues related to this editorial. This work was supported by the National Cancer Institute.