How the merchants of death — tobacco and oil — worked together


Not that long ago, I mentioned in a blog post that the New York Times had found strands of evidence — common law firms, similar lobbying and political strategies and the like — suggesting that two of our most notorious industries may have worked more closely together than anyone could have imagined. At first blush, the idea that lobbyists and key executives for these two so-called “merchants of death” — Big Oil and Big Tobacco — had purposefully worked in tandem sounded a little absurd, possibly the product of a fiction writer’s imagination.

But it has only been over the last year or so that we’ve learned exactly how much the oil industry had at stake. Now we know what we didn’t know then — that scientists working for the big energy firms such as Exxon informed their bosses as long ago as the late 1970s that the world’s climate was starting to heat up and that pollution from burning fossil fuels was a major cause. For a short time, the Big Oil giants seemed to actually consider changing the way that they do business, but they soon decided to embark on a path of denial and cover-up instead. In fact, not only did the oil-and-gas corporations keep their scientific research a secret, but they spent millions on front organizations that peddled a bogus line on climate change.

If this story sounds familiar, it is almost the same strategy pursued by the giant tobacco firms in an effort to obfuscate and confuse customers and regulators about cancer and other health risks from smoking. The only difference seems to be that the cigarette industry leaders got caught in their lies and were called out a decade earlier. Now, a new treasure trove of documents shows how closely the two beleaguered industries actually cooperated:

  • After learning that Shell was using the Stanford Research Institute for animal experimentation, a Phillip Morris executive wrote that the company should consider hiring SRI for its own research, arguing, “Obviously [Shell] would not employ them if they did not think SRI was reliable.” SRI was later hired by tobacco companies to conduct carbon monoxide testing and “develop discrete, portable cigarette testing kits that could be used without attracting attention.”
  • Theodore Sterling, who in 1968 “prepared a report that would prove central to the tobacco industry’s attacks on the emerging scientific consensus around cancer and tobacco,” also had a long history of conducting research for oil companies.
  • Many of the scientists who worked for the tobacco industry’s Scientific Advisory Board were recommended by a former Standard Oil executive.
  • Oil and tobacco companies teamed up to cosponsor America’s favorite pastime: baseball.

Indeed, the links between oil and tobacco are truly a bizarre thing. As also reported recently by the Huffington Post:

Among the more telling documents is a 1967 report in which the American Tobacco Company proposes a “tie-in” between its own Colony cigarettes and the petroleum industry. 

“Success,” the tobacco company wrote, “will depend heavily on the appeal we make to the smoker-driver. And except to say the the appeal is not gasoline, we don’t intend to get into the creative requirements here. It is obvious that smoking pleasure and the freedom and leisure of auto travel must be linked successfully if we are to get this program moving.”

The tobacco industry has paid a big price — both in dollars and damaged reputations — for its dishonesty, and it’s time that Big Oil does the same. Several big state attorneys general, in New York and California, have begun investigations into the oil industry’s campaign of deceit, and it’s critical that these probes uncover the whole story. At least people can choose whether to smoke cigarettes. None of us are immune to the damage caused by global warming.

Read more about the ties between Big Oil and Big Tobacco from the Huffington Post:

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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