10 Cover-ups That Just Made Things Worse


The Tobacco Industry Denies Health Risks of Smoking

A 1930's magazine ad shows a nurse enjoying a cigarette. © Blue Lantern Studio/Corbis
A 1930's magazine ad shows a nurse enjoying a cigarette. © Blue Lantern Studio/Corbis

In 1950, a physician and epidemiologist, Dr. Ernst Wynder, published a landmark study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, pointing to cigarette smoking as a cause of lung cancer [source: Blakesbee]. In response, six major cigarette makers funded a massive research effort of their own — not so much to find out whether their product did indeed pose a risk, but to "blow smoke" in the public's face.

In January 1954, the Tobacco Institute Research Committee, which later changed its name to the Council for Tobacco Research, ran full-page ads in 400 newspapers claiming that "eminent doctors and research scientists have publicly questioned the claimed significance of these experiments" and asserting that although the industry believed that smoking wasn't hazardous to health, it pledged to assist "the research effort into all phases of tobacco use and health" [source: Boyle et al.].

In truth, the industry's own scientists already knew there was a possible link to cancers; a 1953 survey of scientific literature by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco chemist Claude Teague, for example, concluded that "studies of clinical data tend to confirm" a link between heavy smoking and lung cancer. Yet they continued to try to cloud the issue. A 1972 industry memo described an ingenious strategy of "creating doubt about the health charge, without actually denying it" [source: Cummings, Brown and O'Connor].

Eventually, though, attorneys-general from 46 states in the U.S. joined in a massive lawsuit against the industry. The tobacco companies agreed in 1998 to pay out a staggering $10 billion annually – indefinitely – to make up for the damage they'd done, especially in health care costs [source: Public Health Law Center].