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Creating Confusion

From the Publisher of Chicago Life

By PAM BERNS

Due to the hard work of Ald. Ed Burke and the overwhelming support of thousands of concerned citizens and organizations, our City Council passed a law making Chicago restaurants smoke-free. We now have a law in place that not only protects all diners from the dangerous carcinogens in secondhand smoke, it sends a message to the powerful tobacco industry that we no longer believe their outrageous claims. Tobacco is not a benign substance. And Chicago, like many other cities throughout the nation, will no longer buckle under tobacco-funded efforts to scare restaurateurs into believing their businesses will be at risk if their air is no longer toxic. What we can now expect, is an increase in the number of people who will quit smoking, which will result in lower lung cancer rates. An American Medical Association Scientific Session reported that smoking now costs the average smoker 13 to 14 years of life.

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the efforts of the non-smoking advocates were sophisticated. They used phone banks to reach voters who could appeal to their aldermen and employed the use of media consultants and pollsters. The methods that the tobacco interests used successfully for decades are now, ironically, at work defeating the tobacco industry. What is different, though, is the united front put up by the scientific and medical community.

For many decades Big Tobacco lied to their clients and even to Congress about the dangers and addictive contents of their products. As a child in the '50s, I can remember watching television commercials with "doctors" in white jackets recommending cigarettes for health reasons. In those days advertisements for cigarettes would be used as props in television shows. Lucy and Desi built a Christmas tree with cartons of cigarettes. Parents gave their tiny children milk chocolate and candy cigarettes to emulate movie stars. No one knew the secrets that Big Tobacco knew about their deadly products. Many people didn't even know about the deadly addictive ingredients in the products until they ran into health problems and then tried to quit. Today most adults know about the highly addictive and carcinogenic ingredients in cigarettes. The Report of the Surgeon General in 1982 said that "cigarette smoking is the major single cause of cancer mortality in the United States." It fell on deaf ears. In 1983, Sylvester Stallone agreed to use Brown & Williamson tobacco products in "no less than five feature films" for a fee of $500,000. It's remarkable that it has taken a decade for Chicago's City Council to protect its citizens from the organized front of public relations experts and the lobbying efforts and campaign donations by Big Tobacco.

Documentation of Big Tobacco's behind-the-scenes tactics is presented in The Cigarette Papers by Stanton Glantz, John Slade, Lisa Bero, Peter Hanauer and Deborah Barnes. In a "confidential" 1954 memo from Hill & Knowlton public relations to the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, 205,000 copies of a pro-smoking booklet were sent to 176,800 doctors and deans of medical and dental colleges, members of Congress and the press. According to The Cigarette Papers, the booklet "was held necessary and urgently timely to present to leaders of public opinion the fact that there was no unanimity among scientists regarding the charges against cigarettes." The Cigarette Papers describes how the tobacco industry paid for funding of scientific conferences through independent "front" foundations, as to hide its sponsorship and "minimize undesirable" results. In a 1983 memo from Brown & Williamson, the tobacco company wrote to Dr. I.W. Hughes that "controversy mandates more public discussion, not less, just as it mandates increased research."

Today we are seeing the same tactics that were used successfully by Big Tobacco being used by Big Oil regarding global warming: They deny the problem exists and create confusion.

According to Ross Gelbspan in Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists, and Activists Have Fueled the Climate Crisis--and What We Can Do to Avert Disaster, the world is 10 to 20 years away from an increase of 2 degrees Celsius above the planet's usual average temperature. What that will bring with it is a die-off of large portions of the South American rainforests, a major change in ocean circulation patterns, increases in insect-transmitted diseases like Lyme disease and malaria in northern areas and ever-increasingly severe winters that could adversely affect agriculture in the northern hemisphere. We have already experienced the emergence of new viral, bacterial and tick-borne infections in countries that historically had freezing weather that usually killed off the bugs. We have already seen recent extreme weather conditions, such as the 1996 heat wave that cost 800 Chicagoans their lives and the 2005 hurricane season that blanketed the South and flooded New Orleans.

The oil industry-friendly Bush administration has supported an energy policy that is heavy on oil and coal and short on renewable fuels. We have gone to war in the Mideast to preserve our access to Mideast oil. Cheney belittled using conservation as a means to reduce our reliance on oil. Bush withdrew the United States from the Kyoto climate negotiations in 2001 after citing global warming alarmists as "foreign science," even though half of the concerned scientists were Americans.

"Nature's demand that humanity cut its use of coal and oil by 70 percent means the end of the fossil fuel industry as we know it," writes Gelbspan. "No one is more aware of that fact than the top executives of the oil and coal industries and their hired guns, a tiny handful of industry-funded 'greenhouse skeptics,' most of whom are laughingstocks in the scientific community."

"Climate change is not an economic issue," he continues. "It is, first and foremost, a moral issue...To continue to ignore climate impacts means putting at risk billions of poor people around the world who are much more immediately vulnerable to its impacts."

According to Gelbspan, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says we are "passing the point of no return." He calls on the world to make "very deep cuts" in its consumption of carbon fuels "if humanity is to survive."--Pam Berns

Published: February 01, 2006
Issue: Winter 2006