TELEVISION / The butt stops here: Thomas Sutcliffe watches Panorama pull laboratory rabbits out of the hat

Click to follow
PANORAMA (BBC 1) opened with a brief extract from a gangster movie. 'Manhattan, December 15th, 1953,' said an urgent voice as two low-slung limos cruised to a halt outside a New York hotel. The image was monochrome, the music a menacing percussion. What was being reconstructed was a meeting of the 'top five presidents' of America's biggest tobacco companies, or 'the tobacco bosses' as Tom Mangold called them, just in case you had missed the earlier nudge in the ribs.

The meeting was called to discuss the industry's biggest crisis since the war - the discovery that there was a link between smoking and cancer, a fact that threatened to stub out cigarette sales unless some defensive action was taken - insisting, for example, that this wasn't a fact at all. The companies together issued a 'frank statement to cigarette smokers' which declared that customers' health would be 'paramount to every other consideration in our business' and that they would co-operate fully with research into the link between smoking and disease. To that end, or at least to the end of looking like they were pursuing that end, they set up the Council for Tobacco Research, a notionally independent scientific body. But, as Mangold had put it earlier, 'has the industry been telling the truth or selling a pack of lies?'

To the more cynical viewer this wasn't exactly a dollars 65,000 question, more like five bucks, one of those easy openers that quiz shows stick in to ensure that none of the competitors goes home completely humiliated. The last time that anyone thought tobacco companies were exemplars of caring capitalism you could have a night out for a pound and have enough change left over to buy a pack of cigarettes so high in tar that they dripped.

But popular prejudice doesn't count in court and that is why the story matters now. The United States Attorney's Office in eastern New York is investigating evidence that the industry knew all along of the effects of the drug it was peddling. If they can find it, and Mangold's detailed investigation suggests they will, an indictment under the Racketeering and Influence Corrupt Organisations Act could follow. Those specks you can see circling high above are the lawyers representing cancer victims.

There were huge profits at stake here and Mangold showed, in a paper-chase of memoranda and lawyers' letters, that the industry's strategy had been to maximise the doubt about scientific findings on health and smoking, rather than pursue the option of safer cigarettes. The latter was effectively killed off by lawyers, who advised that any advertising reference to healthier cigarettes would be an implicit admission of the danger of conventional brands. Above all, they knew themselves that the link was there - one company summarily closed down its internal research programme when it threatened to provide conclusive evidence, spiriting away laboratory rabbits that should have been examined. The rabbits, it seemed, knew too much.