Allan M. Brandt: How a PR Firm Helped Establish America's Cigarette Century

Roundup: Talking About History

The following excerpt is from chapter 5 of The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America by Allan M. Brandt, (Basic Books, 2007). The passage starts at the moment that the tobacco industry began to face serious scientific data suggesting the connection between lung cancer and cigarette smoke. The tobacco industry's response to hire a PR firm to fight the scientific evidence gave rise to the approach that industry and ideological groups use in their contemporary attacks on science.

By the time Hill & Knowlton took on the tobacco industry in 1953, it was already the most influential public relations firm in the United States, with a client list that included the steel, oil, and aircraft industries.

John W. Hill had cultivated close relationships with executives in these fields since the 1930s. And his firm had also worked with the liquor and chemical industries, areas where the health risks of products had emerged as issues in the past. He shared his clients' strong opposition to government intrusion into business."The role of public relations in the opinion forming process is to communicate information and viewpoints on behalf of causes and organizations," Hill later wrote."The objective is to inform public opinion and win its favor." He had quit smoking in the early 1940s for health reasons, but such concerns would not affect his work on behalf of his tobacco clients. For Hill, the tobacco industry had a public relations problem that his firm could effectively manage.

The tobacco industry had successfully used public relations since the 1920s to shape the meanings and cultural contexts of tobacco use. It was not surprising that in a moment of crisis, the industry would again deploy public relations as the antidote. But now these techniques were used not to change mores and social convention, but to distort and deny important scientific data. In the winter of 1953-54, the industry crossed a legal and moral line by entangling itself in the manipulation of fundamental scientific processes. There would be no easy route back to legitimacy.

Hill immediately recognized that the principal public relations approach of the industry would require strict collaborative action. Even as the companies continued to vie for market share among their respective brands, it was imperative that their in-house public relations offices present a united front in the critical domain of health and science. Hill & Knowlton's operatives expressed particular skepticism about the role of advertising in addressing the industry's crisis."Some bright boy from Madison Avenue," one staffer noted, could"spoil the confidence building." Hill's skepticism concerning advertising reflected two central insights. The public confidence the industry sought could not be achieved through advertising, which was self-interested by definition. Second, it would be crucial for the industry to assert its authority over the scientific domain; science had the distinct advantage of its reputation for disinterestedness. ...

Hill and his colleagues set to work to review a full range of approaches open to them. Dismissing as shortsighted the idea of mounting personal attacks on researchers or simply issuing blanket assurances of safety, they concluded instead that seizing control of the science of tobacco and health would be as important as seizing control of the media. It would be crucial to identify scientists who expressed skepticism about the link between cigarettes and cancer, those critical of statistical methods, and especially those who had offered alternative hypotheses for the cause of cancer. Hill set his staff to identifying the most vocal and visible skeptics....

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