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The Tobacco Resolution
Special Report: Tobacco: On Trial

Tobacco Firms Make 'First Installment' In Release of Secret Industry Documents

By John Schwartz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 28, 1998; Page A03

The four largest U.S. tobacco companies yesterday began releasing more than 30 million pages of previously secret industry documents, making a "first installment" of several hundred thousand pages on the World Wide Web.

The industry began making the documents public to fulfill a Jan. 29 pledge to Congress, which is considering national tobacco legislation that cigarette-makers are seeking, in part, to give them some protection against lawsuits.

"Clearly, the tobacco industry's decision to release these documents is unprecedented in the history of America's business," an industry statement said.

But Minnesota Attorney General Hubert H. Humphrey III dismissed the move as a "PR stunt" designed to give the appearance of "coming clean with the truth" when the state's suit was making the documents public anyway. "It's like Richard Nixon taking credit for releasing the Watergate tapes," Humphrey said.

The papers put online today comprise only about 3 percent of those collected by the state of Minnesota and Minnesota's Blue Cross & Blue Shield in their lawsuit against the industry, which seeks to recover the cost of treating sick smokers. Minnesota is bringing out hundreds of what it considers to be the most damaging documents in a St. Paul courtroom in an effort to show that the industry withheld what it knew about the dangers of smoking and targeted young people with its marketing efforts.

Some of the documents could prove embarrassing to an industry that has suffered a series of blows to its reputation by the release of other sensitive documents in recent years.

One document released yesterday by the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., for instance, contains handwritten notes about habits of smokers ages 12 and up and their propensity to switch brands, and stated "get smokers as young as possible."

Two memos from R.J. Reynolds could call into question the companies' assertion that they do not use ammonia to change the acidity, or pH level, of tobacco smoke and thus boost the delivery of "free" nicotine to smokers. One 1973 memo states that "free nicotine does help explain the differences in performance between Winston, Marlboro, Salem and Kool but not all of the difference," and concludes that "[o]ur emphasis should be directed toward free nicotine while pH would provide us with a measure of or tool to effect free nicotine."

An earlier RJR document from 1941 discusses the relative pH of Camel cigarettes as a possible explanation for the fact that Camel smokers had less nicotine in their blood than smokers of other brands, and suggested that free nicotine was more "toxic" than the more commonly found neutral salts form; this caused blood vessels to dilate and absorb more nicotine, the memo suggested.

"Today's is the first installment" of several hundred thousand pages of documents, said Steve Duchesne, a spokesman for the industry. "The companies will be working as quickly as they can on future installments."

The industry is not, however, releasing papers that it claims are confidential or protected by the attorney-client relationship. Also, Brown & Williamson's corporate parent, BAT, has not agreed to release some 7 million pages of documents in a depository outside of London, many of which are being used in the Minnesota case. The industry is also still fighting the release to Minnesota of 39,000 highly sensitive documents; a special master in the case has recommended that those be released, and the judge has yet to rule in the matter.

The industry did not provide access to a master index of the documents, and fought the release of Minnesota's court filings that quote from the documents and could be used to sift through the mountain of paper.

"If you have 30 million pages of paper and you don't have a road map, it's pretty hard to make anything of it," said David J. Adelman, a tobacco analyst with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter.

The site,, was supposed to open at 10 a.m. At midday, attempts to reach the home page were met with a sign reading "UNDER CONSTRUCTION."

Even after the site opened, only the documents from R.J. Reynolds and Brown & Williamson were available; links to the computers containing documents from Philip Morris and Lorillard did not work. Documents from the industry's lobbying arm, the Tobacco Institute, and from the jointly funded science arm, the Council for Tobacco Research, will not be available until March 6. Each company's archive was presented in a different way, some requiring extra software not commonly used.

The Brown & Williamson site states: "Welcome to a new era of cooperation between the tobacco industry and the government."

Also yesterday, the Clinton administration announced the latest anti-smoking initiative by the Food and Drug Administration: a $7.5 million ad campaign aimed at curbing illegal tobacco sales to minors.

Staff researcher Nathan Abse contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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