By John Schwartz
The British American Tobacco Company memo, obtained by The Washington Post, laid out in great detail Philip Morris's presentation at a February 1988 conference of its global strategy for dealing with environmental tobacco smoke. The company was "spending vast sums of money" to find scientists amenable to its cause and funding research by them, the memo said.
According to the memo, Philip Morris said the company vetted the resumes of scientists with "no previous connection with tobacco companies" to ensure that "obvious `anti-smokers' or those with `unsuitable backgrounds' are filtered out." Scientists who agreed to review material on secondhand smoke and seemed promising were contacted by a Philip Morris scientist about the company funding their research; proposals "apparently would be `filtered' by lawyers to eliminate areas of sensitivity," the memo said.
The chosen scientists "should be able to produce research or stimulate controversy" that could be used to advantage by "public affairs people in the relevant countries," the memo said. The global campaign was coordinated by the Washington law firm Covington & Burling.
The British American Tobacco representative expressed misgivings about the "somewhat questionable" Philip Morris strategy, saying the "excessive involvement of external lawyers at this very basic scientific level" is "likely to frighten off a number of scientists."
The memo provides an unusually detailed description of an industry "propaganda effort," said Matthew L. Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "This document puts in one place the most comprehensive picture of how the tobacco industry has used lawyers to distort science and create the illusion of controversy about well-settled scientific facts."
David H. Remes, a partner at Covington & Burling, said, "For reasons of attorney-client privilege, we can't comment on a document purporting to describe a meeting involving a client. However, we would note that it is not unusual or improper for lawyers to help clients identify experts, including scientific experts, on matters of potential regulatory, legislative or litigation significance, or to work with those experts."
Tom Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the American subsidiary of British American Tobacco, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, said that scientist Sharon Boyce wrote the 1988 memo shortly after coming to BAT and that it was "a subjective account of her impressions of a Philip Morris program that had been described to her." Even though the U.S. surgeon general and the National Academy of Sciences had issued reports by that time characterizing secondhand smoke as a health risk, Fitzgerald said that studies of secondhand smoke were few and inconclusive.
A Philip Morris representative declined to comment on the memo.
The tobacco industry has sued the Environmental Protection Agency over its classification of secondhand smoke as a carcinogen and has vehemently fought the Occupational Health and Safety Administration's plans to issue indoor smoking bans. Reports by the Congressional Research Service have taken issue with the extent of the health threat cited by the EPA, though high levels of exposure appear to present health risks.
Tobacco researcher Stanton Glantz, a consultant to the OSHA initiative, called the 1988 document "quite remarkable" evidence of "a continuing effort by Philip Morris to keep the public confused about secondhand smoke."
A class-action suit against the tobacco industry on behalf of nonsmoking flight attendants claiming injuries from secondhand smoke begins next month in Miami.
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