Why Is Big Tobacco Funding Climate Change Skeptics?

“Doubt is our product,” writes a tobacco company that funds groups working to discredit peer-reviewed scientific studies.
By @katierucke |
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    Greenpeace recently released an update to a March 2010 report that stressed, once again, that climate change denial is not only funded by the fossil fuel industry, but the tobacco industry as well.

    As Mint Press News previously reported, companies in industries such as oil and tobacco often give generous financial donations to organizations funding research that work to discredit peer-reviewed, scientific studies indicating that climate change is a real phenomenon caused by humans.

    The reason? If the government were to increase regulations on environmental issues in general, tobacco companies, too, could see a negative effect to their bank accounts, considering their products’ environmental impact — not to mention potential smoking bans that could negatively affect sales of tobacco products.

    While the tobacco industry is not commonly associated with dispelling the existence of climate change, the industry has been funding organizations that attempt to cast doubts on the validity of climate change studies since the early 1990s.

    As the English writer and environmental and political activist George Monbiot wrote in his book “Death Denial,” “the corporate funding of lobby groups denying that manmade climate change is taking place was initiated not by Exxon, or by any other firm directly involved in the fossil fuel industry. It was started by the tobacco company Philip Morris.”

    Monbiot reported that in December 1992, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had published a 500-page report called “Respiratory Health Effects of Passive Smoking,” which found that the widespread exposure to environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) in the U.S. “presents a serious and substantial public health impact.”

    For adults, ETS, also known as second-hand smoke, is a human lung carcinogen, responsible for approximately 3,000 lung cancer deaths annually in U.S. non-smokers. For children, exposure to ETS increases the risk of developing a lower respiratory tract infection such as bronchitis or pneumonia. The EPA estimated ETS affected between 150,000 to 300,000 children annually.

    Concerned that the EPA report would lead to increased regulation on the tobacco industry, Ellen Merlo, senior vice-president of corporate affairs for Philip Morris, the world’s biggest tobacco firm, sent a letter to the organization’s CEO and President William I. Campbell. The letter explained that the company was working to prevent states, cities, and businesses from passing passive smoking bans.

    Monbiot wrote that both the oil and tobacco lobbies recognized early on that their “best chance of avoiding regulation was to challenge the scientific consensus. As a memo from the tobacco company Brown and Williamson noted, ‘Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.’”

    As Monbiot said, this was a difficult endeavor, since the science supporting climate change was as strong in the early 1990s as the science showing that smoking causes lung cancer or that HIV caused AIDS.

    Even now, a May 2013 peer-reviewed study, which examined more than 11,000 climate change papers — 4,000 of which discussed whether climate change was caused by humans — found that 97 percent of scientists agree climate change is occurring and is caused by man-made pollution.

    Aware that the public may be skeptical of trusting the big tobacco industry that smoking wasn’t as dangerous for one’s health as reported by the EPA and smoking had no impact on the environment, Philip Morris created a funded advocacy of “concerned citizens” who cited concerns about government “overregulation.”

    According to memos obtained from Philip Morris, the group said the grassroots movement “should portray the danger of tobacco smoke as just one ‘unfounded fear’ among others, such as concerns about pesticides and cellphones.”

    Big tobacco, like big oil companies such as ExxonMobil, worked with well-known websites, lobby groups and think tanks such as the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation to “create the impression that doubt about climate change is widespread,” and that prematurely taking action to prevent global warming would negatively impact the global economy.

    Their plan worked. While scientific evidence has confirmed the existence of man-made climate change since the early 90s, a poll in November 2012 found that 66 percent of Americans believe there is “a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening.”


    Collection of climate change contrarians

    Organizations such as Media Matters, a left-leaning nonprofit, which monitors, analyzes and corrects “conservative misinformation in the U.S. media,” released a report last November that called attention to how industries that have a financial interest in blocking legislation to address climate change are using conservative mainstream media outlets to distort scientific research and “fuel” confusion around the topic.

    For example, lawyer Steve Milloy, a former tobacco industry consultant, was hired by the American Petroleum Institute to develop a public relations strategy to minimize the threat of climate change. Milloy is a frequent guest on Fox News where he consistently says the government doesn’t need to address climate and air pollution. He also writes a column for the Washington Times, in which he has called those who are concerned about climate change “whacked out, intellectually and morally bankrupt.”

    Milloy also runs the website JunkScience.com, which has misrepresented the risks of pesticides, ozone depletion, breast implants, asbestos, and secondhand smoke in addition to global warming.

    According to Media Matters, the website was initially sponsored by The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), which was a PR group funded by Philip Morris to downplay the danger of cigarette smoke. Other clients for TASSC included Chevron, ExxonMobil, Dow Chemical and Occidental Petroleum.

    The site is currently run by the Citizens for the Integrity of Science, which does not share any information about its donors.

    Additionally, at the libertarian Cato Institute — which was co-founded by Charles Koch —  the organization’s sole climate change expert, Patrick Michaels, says about 40 percent of his funding comes from the oil industry.

    Michaels is frequently quoted by major media outlets downplaying the threat of climate change, even though several of his claims have been proven wrong. For example, he argued there would be a “statistically significant cooling trend” from 1998 to 2008, but there was not.

    His work has also been criticized by other scientists, who say that Michaels has misrepresented their work.


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