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Tobacco industry accused of setting up research which it can use for public relations

JIM WALEY: It's forty years since the link between smoking and lung cancer was first demonstrated. The cigarette companies reacted with a promise to make consumer health their top priority and, very publicly, began funding medical research into the effects of smoking. That funding continues today, even though most medical authorities and many governments long ago accepted that they had all the evidence that was needed to discourage smokers. So what do the tobacco companies stand to gain by supporting further research?

Our cover story is from Sunday's Helen Dalley.

EXTRACTS

UNIDENTIFIED: It has not been established that cigarette smoking ....

UNIDENTIFIED: The bottom line is that we simply don't know ....

UNIDENTIFIED: It is not a closed case. The fact that ....

UNIDENTIFIED: I don't know that they're harmful or harmless. What I'm saying is ....

UNIDENTIFIED: When the answers are found, I think this industry is going to come out all right.

HELEN DALLEY: American tobacco executives pushing the same industry line they've pushed for four decades. Australia, too, plays its part in this global strategy.

UNIDENTIFIED: The fact remains an open scientific question.

UNIDENTIFIED: And all sorts of evidence has come out to suggest that, in fact, smoking doesn't cause lung cancer.

UNIDENTIFIED: We've had a controversy about cigarette smoking for probably three decades now.

UNIDENTIFIED: The jury is still out.

ANTHONY CALUCCI: Quit this lie. Quit telling this lie. It's over; it's 1992. Would you please come into the 20th century before we get into the 21st, for God's sake.

STEVEN WOODWARD: I've got no doubt that tobacco industry executives have lied through their teeth for ten or twenty years about the health effects of smoking.

UNIDENTIFIED: Coffin nails! Yes, that's what cigarettes are, according to the Medical Research Council.

HELEN DALLEY: The industry's worldwide campaign of deception began as the first research on mice linking smoking with lung cancer hit the headlines in 1953. The giant US companies, according to their public relations consultant, were frantically alarmed.

The industry hit back. In 1954, with much fanfare in newspaper ads, they announced the establishment of the independent Council for Tobacco Research, or CTR, to investigate smoking and its effects - its solemn pledge: that consumers' health would be paramount to every other consideration in our business.

Funded by the tobacco industry, yet created by the public relations company, the American Research Council's paramount aim appeared, instead, to be damage control. As long as the industry funded research, it could argue that more research is needed on smoking and health, thereby casting doubt on the links between smoking, disease and death.

But according to Toxicologist, Dr Anthony Calucci (?), this was a line the industry knew to be untrue. Dr Calucci was Director of Smoking and Health at American giant, R.J. Reynolds, and is the highest-ranking insider to blow the whistle. Here, he is talking to Sam Donaldson of American ABC.

EXTRACT

SAM DONALDSON: You were getting close to a mechanism that would have demonstrated conclusively that what?

ANTHONY CALUCCI: That cigarettes destroy lung tissue, how they destroy lung tissue, how they predispose it to chronic bronchitis and emphysema and, ultimately, to cancer. And one day, we just all were called into a room and fired.

SAM DONALDSON: Why?

ANTHONY CALUCCI: Because they didn't want to know the truth. I mean basically, I think, it's just sort of a conspiracy of disinformation. So how can you carry on a conspiracy of disinformation when sitting in your back pocket or in your laboratory, as a matter of fact, or in the minds of your scientists is all this data? Just pretend it doesn't exist.

Here's what was told to me when I got to Reynolds' tobacco company in 1967: If any other tobacco company executives ever come and visit you, don't mention the word cancer to them. It was verboten. It was absolutely forbidden. So how they can honestly go up before Congress or anybody they want in a court of law and say 'Nobody ever told me it caused cancer' ....

HELEN DALLEY: This quiet, residential suburb of Sydney is where the local outposts of the tobacco multinationals fell in with the global strategy. In 1970, the three cigarette companies set up the Australian Tobacco Research Foundation, or ATRF, which now resides in a small room in this house. It's not surprising if you've never heard of it. Unlike most research-granting bodies, the ATRF seems most reluctant to be scrutinised. When Sunday began inquiring, scant information was given out and several attempts were made to fob us off.

The companies have invested over $10 million through the independent ATRF - it's aim: to fund research into the relationship in Australia between smoking and health in its widest context in order to help answer unresolved medical questions. In addition, the ATRF promised to encourage communication of scientific information on this subject to the public. Yet curiously, in twenty three years, the foundation has published only two reports on the research that it funds.

STEVEN WOODWARD: There is no other research institution of which I'm aware that publishes reports so infrequently. The Cancer Council, the Heart Foundation, publish annual reports. They open their research to the greatest degree of public scrutiny. The Australian Tobacco Research Foundation hides in the shadows. That, to me, smacks of hiding something; you don't want the public to know so don't publish the reports.

HELEN DALLEY: The tobacco companies declined to talk on camera about their generous support of research, claiming the ATRF is completely independent of them, but the chairman of both the foundation board and its scientific advisory committee, Professor Michael Rand, did agree to be interviewed.

MICHAEL RAND: The research sponsored by the foundation, as I've already said to you - the expectation is that the investigators themselves will publish it in reputable scientific and medical journals, and they do ....

HELEN DALLEY: But you've only done two reports in twenty years?

MICHAEL RAND: So what? As I told you, the results of the research are published.

HELEN DALLEY: An internationally renowned pharmacologist, Professor Rand has been part of the ATRF since its inception in 1970. He sits on the board alongside tobacco executives.

MICHAEL RAND: Tobacco companies don't get a say. There is a scientific advisory committee which sets out a priority list for funding and I've never heard any hesitation expressed on the part of the tobacco companies about what might be the outcome.

STEVEN WOODWARD: It is a good public relations exercise that the industry says that there are no strings attached to this research, but the fact of the matter is that the research is not just used by scientists. It's used by the public relations machine which the tobacco industry has got going in order to fulfil their corporate aims of selling more cigarettes.

HELEN DALLEY: What the critics are suggesting is that cigarette makers set up the research foundation to create the impression that the truth about smoking is still not known and that they are actively involved in trying to discover that truth.

JOHN SHAW: I think it's been part of a strategy to set up a body which appears to be above board and doing good things, but the real strategy is something quite different.

HELEN DALLEY: So it's a front?

JOHN SHAW: Yes.

HELEN DALLEY: Do you reject the idea that many in the medical community have said to me that the tobacco industry in fact set up the research foundation to use it as a public relations tool?

MICHAEL RAND: If you tell me that people say that, I believe you, but I have no information bearing on that point. I have no evidence to suggest that they did.

HELEN DALLEY: But in America, at least, such evidence is now emerging.

MARK EDELL: The Council of Tobacco Research was a fraud.

HELEN DALLEY: Lawyer, Mark Edell, is a David tackling the tobacco industry Goliaths. In pursuing law suits against the industry over the years, he's uncovered confidential documents damaging to the American Research Council's credibility.

MARK EDELL: CTR was a front, it was a shield, and it wasn't calculated to lead to any relevant information on cigarette smoking and health.

HELEN DALLEY: Consider these American industry documents: a CTR memo which states that the program has 'carried its fair share of the public relations load in providing materials to stamp out the brush fires as they arose'. And these damning handwritten notes from a former tobacco chief executive: 'CTR is the best and cheapest insurance the tobacco industry can buy, and without it, the industry ... would be dead'. And this boast from a former vice-president of the Tobacco Institute, the industry lobby group: 'The holding strategy over the years has been brilliantly conceived and executed, creating doubt about the health issue without actually denying it'.

Such evidence led American Federal Judge Sarokin, to write in an opinion that the tobacco industry may be the king of concealment and disinformation. In another case, the judge wrote that a jury might reasonably find that the US cigarette companies had engaged in an industry-wide conspiracy, vast in its scope, devious in its purpose and devastating in its results.

PETER BAUME: And they are, in fact, bad corporate citizens. We should have nothing to do with them.

HELEN DALLEY: In Australia, many scientists and doctors, like Professor Peter Baume, argue that accepting tobacco funds for research lends the industry respectability and, more importantly, credibility to their position that more research is needed to find out the truth.

PETER BAUME: The amount of evidence that we have today about smoking and its effects on people is overwhelming. We don't need more answers. We have the evidence. We know that if people smoke, they're sicker. We know if they stop smoking, they become healthier, and companies are merely being as obstructive and as difficult as they can in denying that kind of evidence. It is there. It has been in the public place for a quarter of a century.

SIMON CHAPMAN: What would you do if you'd had a billion dollar investment - and they had that investment worldwide when the first evidence started coming through in the late '50s and early '60s - what would you do? Would you suddenly say: Oh, we'd better just pack this in? You know, it's the goose that lays the golden egg.

HELEN DALLEY: Make no mistake. These cigarette production lines are indeed laying that golden egg. World wide, 5,500 billion cigarettes are sold every year, worth about $320 billion. Australia alone consumes about $4 billion worth of cigarettes a year. These phenomenal figures mean the industry has much to lose if its product is restricted, and a great deal to gain if it keeps the health controversy bubbling along.

STEVEN WOODWARD: The tobacco research that's been funded by the tobacco industry has been incredibly important in their campaign of delaying proper regulation of this industry which kills nearly 20,000 Australians each year.

HELEN DALLEY: As long as the industry through the tobacco institute keeps pushing the line of why more research is needed, it buys itself time. It has argued publicly - as in this newspaper ad - and privately - in submissions to governments - that we should be sensible about smoking. 'There's no proof of causation of even one death from smoking' it claims, always boasting that the industry out-spends governments on research money.

JOHN SHAW: The industry were able to martial tremendous forces to say that you couldn't really push us to one side until we've answered all the questions. That has been a very successful tactic and they've used it in submissions to various authorities to try and hedge their bets and make certain that the sorts of controls that really should have been instituted twenty years ago, are only just coming into place in the US and Australia and don't even exist in parts of Europe or Asia.

EXTRACT ( 7.30 report)

REPORTER: Your products like Benson and Hedges, Stirling and so on - do they kill people?

MARTIN RIORDAN: Well, that's your claim ....

HELEN DALLEY: Martin Riordan, spokesperson for WD and HO Wills, avoids admitting any liability in a television interview last year.

EXTRACT

UNIDENT IFIED: Do they kill ?

MARTIN RIORDAN: Well, I don't know that, and I certainly know that the scientific world community is still out. The jury is still out on whether that is the case.

HELEN DALLEY: Yet, five years ago, in the Medical Journal of Australia, the ATRF's own scientific advisory committee was unequivocal. It wrote that its members are unanimous in believing that smoking is an important causative factor in several major diseases. They recognised the link between smoking and lung cancer. Professor Rand was a signatory to that important letter, although there now appears to be a little back-pedalling.

So you would agree with the warning on cigarette packs that smoking causes lung cancer?

MICHAEL RAND: I have some doubts about that. I think the more valid statement would be: There is a strong association between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. What I think would be valuable from the scientific point of view is a little bit more information about exactly what is the nature of the link.

HELEN DALLEY: So you believe the evidence that smoking causes lung cancer is not conclusive?

MICHAEL RAND: I think there are gaps in knowledge. There are some that don't think there are gaps in knowledge. I'm not going to get into a fight about it.

STEVEN WOODWARD: The Chairman of the Australian Tobacco Research Foundation, if he makes those denials, ought to look at himself seriously in the mirror or to read about some of our great scientific philosophers and the belief that, in science, you pursue truth.

MICHAEL RAND: There is no question of a strong association between smoking and lung cancer.

HELEN DALLEY: Does it cause lung cancer is what I'm asking you?

MICHAEL RAND: Yes. Well, you don't ask so much as tell me.

HELEN DALLEY: I'm asking you, does it cause lung cancer, in your opinion?

MICHAEL RAND: In my opinion, there is still room for exact information about the mechanism by which smoking causes lung cancer.

HELEN DALLEY: Just correct me if I'm wrong. You were saying it does cause lung cancer but you're trying to find out the mechanism by which it causes cancer?

MICHAEL RAND: Yes, Miss Dalley. I think we will conclude at this point because I honestly do not understand what this has to do with your investigations into the ATRF.

HELEN DALLEY: While the views of Professor Rand - who is receiving an ATRF grant - seem to approximate those of the industry, he maintains he's independent. Yet, when Sunday asked the company's mouthpiece, the Tobacco Institute, for an interview, they pulled out, claiming that Professor Rand could express their view.

As well as being a recipient of tobacco funds, you also sit on the board of trustees alongside executives of each tobacco company. How independent or unaffected by their views can you really be?

MICHAEL RAND: They don't ask for any oath of allegiance or anything like that, and I do my very best, as a member of the ATRF, to act without prejudice in regard to my personal ideas.

HELEN DALLEY: But it's the possibility that accepting tobacco grants means researchers could be colluding with the industry as unwitting accomplices in their game, and that worries many critics.

STEVEN WOODWARD: The objectives of the Australian Tobacco Research Foundation are to fulfil the objectives of the Australian tobacco industry which are against the public health interests of this country.

OWEN WOODMAN: Given the abysmal state of funding for medical research in Australia, it would be foolish not to get money from these sources to help us look into the basic questions of disease.

HELEN DALLEY: Melbourne University pharmacologist, Dr Owen Woodman, is receiving $70,000 from the ATRF for a two-year grant. He doesn't accept the criticism from his peers.

OWEN WOODMAN: The distribution of the funds is administered by a scientific body. It's based on scientific merit and there is no manipulation of the output of that research, so I believe the funding process is separated away from the source of the funds, if you like, and it's really on a scientific, medical basis.

HELEN DALLEY: But at the University of New South Wales, the Faculty of Medicine decided, two years ago, to ban its staff from accepting ATRF grants.

PETER BAUME: We decided: No more tobacco funding.

HELEN DALLEY: Why?

PETER BAUME: Because it's wrong. It's the greatest public health problem facing Australia. It's the greatest cause of drug-related deaths in Australia. The companies know it, and we don't want their money. It's blood money.

HELEN DALLEY: Some of your colleagues have said to me that it's akin to taking blood money. What do you say to them?

DAVID POWIS: Well, they're entitled to their opinion and that's all part of the general academic debate. The research I'm doing has been rigorously assessed by my scientific peers who had nothing to do with the industry at all. The outcome of that review has said: Y es, this is a good bit of science; it should be done; it will add to the body of knowledge.

HELEN DALLEY: Professor David Powis and his team at the University of Newcastle, are conducting research currently supported by a foundation grant, but he is sympathetic to the criticism about taking such money. His faculty recently voted unanimously to ban ATRF grants in future.

DAVID POWIS: Well, the Faculty of Medicine is in the business of health promotion, and it would feel that there are inconsistencies in, on the one hand, taking money from a product that is shown to be harmful to health, yet on the other hand, promoting health.

HELEN DALLEY: The moral responsibilities and the ethical questions became too great?

DAVID POWIS: Yes, I think that's fair to say.

HELEN DALLEY: A raft of other health organisations have taken a similar stand. Both the National Heart Foundation and Cancer Society forbid their grants to anyone receiving ATRF funds, and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the AMA and Thoracic Society all strongly advise their members to refuse tobacco money.

MICHAEL RAND: If there are some people believe that money from certain sources is tainted, they have a right to have that belief and they have a right to act on that belief.

HELEN DALLEY: So you don't see it as taking blood money as some doctors do?

MICHAEL RAND: I don't see how you can say that for a legal and controlled industry.

HELEN DALLEY: One other issue remains: what kind of research the Australian Tobacco Research Foundation funds?

Over the years, many researchers have come up with bad news for the industry, supporting the overwhelming medical opinion about smoking - hence, the company's unwillingness to trumpet such findings.

STEVEN WOODWARD: While the tobacco industry continues to fund the research, they do not tell us that the research that they fund finds exactly the same results as the research funded by the cancer councils, the Heart Foundation and the NHMRC, that smoking is bad for health, it's very bad for health and it's our leading cause of preventable disease and death.

HELEN DALLEY: These days, the foundation also funds research into other mechanisms besides smoking that cause disease, but if, as the industry once claimed, customers' health is paramount, wouldn't it be reasonable to expect research money to directly address the issues of smoking and health? The reality is often quite different.

Does your project have anything to do with smoking and health?

DAVID POWIS: No, not in a direct sense, at all. The information will be largely irrelevant, also, to smokers in the immediate future.

HELEN DALLEY: So would you agree that your research isn't crucial to the public health issues surrounding smoking?

DAVID POWIS: I think that's fair to say, yes.

HELEN DALLEY: Would you say the research you're doing is absolutely critical and crucial to the big questions surrounding smoking?

OWEN WOODMAN: No. I think it's much more basic medical research and disease processes that are much wider than cigarette smoking.

HELEN DALLEY: Do you think it's possible that the tobacco companies can use the good reputations of medical practitioners and scientists, like yourself, as pawns in their strategy to keep the debate alive, to keep the doubt alive about whether smoking causes major diseases?

MICHAEL RAND: Well, to ask that question, you must have a very cynical kind of mind and I really am not the person to ask. I have no idea what is in the minds of the tobacco industry.

US TV COMMERCIAL

UNIDENTIFIED: Forget about all that cancer, heart disease, emphysema, stroke stuff. Gentlemen, we're not in this business for our health.