The Good Old Days When Big Tobacco Spun Lies About Smoking (and a Real-Life "Thank You for Smoking" Character Revealed)

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Last night almost the entire ACSH staff trekked down to Times Square to see a preview of Thank You for Smoking, based on the Christopher Buckley novel (a very humorous one indeed) about Nick Naylor, the smokesman -- er, spokesman -- for the tobacco industry's pseudo-scientific research arm.

We all enjoyed it and laughed at the debates among the lobbyist characters over which of their industries killed more people -- cigarettes, alcohol, or guns. Clearly, as the tobacco rep argued, his industry won hands down. No debate there!

We laughed as slick Nick appeared on talkshows and before Congress, glibly arguing that cigarettes were no more harmful than butter, milk, or a glass of wine. We pondered how the media welcomed Nick and his spin -- and rushed to get his views on the air to "balance" those in the medical profession who maintained cigarettes were deadly.

It was a fun movie (not as good as the book, but, as they say, movies are "a different medium"). The laughs aside, though, we cannot forget that the portrayals of spin in "Thank You" actually occurred in real life -- especially from 1954 (when the Tobacco Institute was established -- and the industry argued there was "no proof" smoking was hazardous to health) to the mid-90s, when the CEOs of the companies manufacturing the leading cause of premature death in America stood before Congress, arms raised in oath, swearing that they did not know of evidence that smoking killed or was addictive. The real-life story is not funny. Those forms of "spin" killed millions of Americans.

As I watched the tobacco apologist Nick Naylor do his spin on TV shows with health professionals -- with his laughs, jokes, and denials about the dangers of smoking -- I could not forget that in the 80s I regularly debated Nick's real-life counterparts, particularly a guy named Tom Howard. I can recall being on Merv Griffin's show in the mid-80s with Mr. Howard, who tried to attack me, as I addressed the health dangers of smoking, by saying "Dr. Whelan is the lady who claims sex causes cancer." That got a good laugh out of the audience -- and that is what he, like Nick, wanted. Of course, I was able to work in an epidemiological rejoinder about multiple sexual partners as a risk factor for cervical cancer, and "Nick" shrunk back in his chair. For whatever reason, that was the real "Nick's" last TV appearance with me. I never saw him again.

Go see Thank you for Smoking and feel proud that we've made progress in the past twenty-five years in advancing knowledge about the dangers of smoking -- to the point where a parody of the cigarette industry may become a best-selling movie. (And see Fears pieces on Thank You for Smoking appear here, here, here, here, and here.)

P.S. As I was using Google to check Tom Howard's name and his employment with the Tobacco Institute, I found this interesting tobacco-industry document from 1983 that's a reminder that Howard really was a Nick Naylor and that I was his archenemy:

A Critique of the Tobacco Institute's Communication Materials
Date: Oct. 1983
...Merv Griffin -- Smoking/Tom Howard: Howard was overmatched. As a team, both doctors Elizabeth Whelan and Halletu presented themselves much more credibly. In particular, Whelan seemed to be very forceful /and persuasive on the issues. She dismissed much of Howard's discussion, of secondary smoke, as being trivial to the issue of smoking and major health issues. Howard handled the adversity fairly well. However, it would have been extremely difficult for him to compete with these individuals along the lines of credibility. Both of the individuals were excellent spokesmen for the anti-smoking issue. I am not sure if Howard could ever have matched up evenly with either of these imdividuals.

And finally, here's a photo of the real-life Nick Naylor, Tom Howard, in an ad promoting his tobacco-defending PR skills: