After our discussion of the sad case of Darrell Huff, the celebrated “How to Lie with Statistics” guy who had a lucrative side career disparaging the link between smoking and cancer, I was motivated to follow John Mashey’s recommendation and read the book, Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition, by historian Robert Proctor.
My first stop upon receiving the book was the index, in particular the entry for Rubin, Donald B. I followed the reference to pages 440-442 and found the description of Don’s activities to be accurate, neither diminished nor overstated, to the best of my knowledge.
Rubin is the second-most-famous statistician to have been paid by the cigarette industry, but several other big and small names have been on the payroll at one time or another. Here’s a partial list. Just including the people I know or have heard of:
Herbert Solomon, Stanford
Richard Tweedie, Bond U
Arnold Zellner, U of Chicago
Paul Switzer, Stanford
Joseph Fleiss, Columbia
Nathan Mantel, George Washington U
Joseph Berkson, Mayo Clinic
Also the well-known psychologist Stanley Schacter, sociologist Peter Berger, and Ernest Hook, who’s not so famous but whom I happened to know because he sometimes would hang out at the faculty lounge at the UC Berkeley statistics department. Of all these people, the names that surprise me the most are the public health researchers such as Fleiss.
Much of the cancer-denial work was done after the 1964 Surgeon General’s report. For example,
The statistician George L. Saiger from Columbia University received [Council for Tobacco Research] Special Project funds “to seek to reduce the correlation of smoking and diseases by introduction of additional variables”; he also was paid $10,873 in 1966 to testify before Congress, denying the cigarette-cancer link.
And here’s a famous name:
Ingram Olkin, chairman of Stanford’s Department of Statistics, received $12,000 to do a similar job (SP-82) on the Framingham Heart Study . . . Lorillard’s chief of research okayed Olkin’s contract, commenting that he was to be funded using “considerations other than practical scientific merit.”
Ouch. I bet that one didn’t make it into the Stanford alumni magazine.
As late as 1974, a cigarette-company-funded pharmacologist “published an article in Executive Health titled “The Case against Tobacco Is Not Closed: Why Smoking May Not Be ‘Dangerous to Your Health’!”
This does not fit well with cigarette lobbyists’ claims that everybody knew all along that cigarettes are dangerous, people used to call them “cancer sticks” etc etc. As Proctor demonstrates, surveys over the decades have found a lot of uncertainty about the health risks of cigarettes—and the cigarette companies were doing their best to prolong this uncertainty.
One thing I learned from Proctor’s book was the distinction between tobacco and cigarettes. Tobacco is bad for you, cigarettes kill. What’s the difference? Two biggies: mass production and how the tobacco is processed. Mass production means that higher doses are more convenient and affordable (not such a good thing if you’re addicted to a product that causes cancer). The part I didn’t know about, before reading this book, is that the physical/chemical treatment (in particular, something called “flue-curing”) makes cigarettes much less irritating to the throat, so that a smoker can more easily inhale and get those carcinogens directly into the lungs.
Thus, a world in which people grew tobacco in their backyards and rolled their own cigars would cut out lots and lots of smoking morbidity and mortality.
One thing I didn’t quite catch, though—I’ve never puffed on a cigarette myself—is why the nicotine patch isn’t more popular. If people want to quit, why not give the patch a try?
Proctor also notes the divergent interests of two groups that are often conflated, “cigarette companies” and “smokers.” According to surveys cited by Proctor, most smokers (in the U.S., at least) want to quit. I’m assuming that most cigarette companies don’t want this. This is all well known but it sometimes gets lost in discussions of the “war on smokers,” etc.
Some juicy bits from Proctor’s book:
Proctor reports the following amazing court testimony from “Kenneth Ludmerer, M.D., a Washington University professor of medicine and medical history. . . . Ludmerer says he agreed to work for the industry after seeing the poor quality of historical testimony introduced by the plaintiffs, but what is remarkable is how truncated his own investigations have been . . .”:
Ludmerer made this statement in 2002. I looked him up and he still seems to be employed.
I wonder if he still has no opinion on whether “cigarette smoking contributes to the development of lung cancer in human beings”? Maybe there have been some important research developments since 2002 that have convinced him. I bet it’s tough for the poor guy, being such a lonely voice in the wilderness. At some level, ya gotta admire someone who’s willing to make a statement that will make him appear to outsiders as either a liar or a fool. Ludmerer reportedly received over half a million dollars for his testimony, but I can’t believe he needed the money. Cost of living in St. Louis is, like, nothing, and I have a feeling Wash U. already pays him pretty well. I can only conclude that he either believed everything he said or that he felt there was a principled reason to lie about his beliefs.
The big picture
As a professor, it is natural for me to get particularly indignant about the offenses of my academic colleagues. To his credit, though, Proctor doesn’t lose track of the larger story, which is the century-long transition of tobacco-smoking to mass-produced lethality. In the first part of the twentieth century, cigarette companies conducted research into smoking and cancer, with the hope of developing a safe cigarette. After all, they had no motivation to kill their customers. It eventually became clear that the safe cigarette wasn’t going to happen.
This all makes a lot of sense, and it’s a lot different from the picture I got from talking with Rubin about this, several years ago. Then the story was that everyone had known forever that smoking caused cancer, and that cigarette manufacturers were performing the useful service of supplying a consumer good that many people wanted. It’s interesting to see that, at least in public, cigarette executives taking a much more direct position that they did not want to be in the position of giving people cancer: “If our product is harmful . . . we’ll stop making it.”
P.S. I wrote this awhile ago but it kept getting bumped. In the meantime, I used much of it in this ethics column for Chance.