British tobacco companies hushed up health dangers

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The Independent Online
BRITISH tobacco companies knew as early as 1965 that cigarettes were dangerous and addictive but refused to admit the facts publicly.

A series of internal memoranda and documents also shows that senior executives in the tobacco industry discussed 'cheating' nicotine/tar league tables, which were introduced by the government in 1973 to help smokers to choose safer cigarettes.

In 1978, the companies talked about stopping the funding of studies on very young smokers because 'the results could be used against the industry'.

The disclosures come on the eve of a High Court judicial review of the Legal Aid Board's decision, last year, not to grant legal aid to 20 people who are seeking damages from tobacco companies for smoking-related health problems. Lawyers believe they have a powerful case alleging that tobacco companies misled consumers about the health risks of cigarettes for years.

The documents seen by the Independent on Sunday, suggest that BAT (British American Tobacco), the largest tobacco company in the world, and other companies, knew that cigarettes could damage health. BAT sold cigarettes in Britain only for a brief period in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but conducted extensive research and development here.

In a 1965 memo to a senior BAT executive, the connection between smoking and cancer is accepted as 'valid'. It says that research is necessary to determine '. . . is the effect of smoke, either as a source of pleasure or of cancer, attributable to a few, or all, of its constituents'.

A BAT board plan, dated December 1976, argues that 'various tactical moves are possible for achieving low league table positions'. A document dated August 1977 asks: 'Should we market cigarettes intended to reassure the smoker that they are safer without assuring ourselves that indeed they are so or are not less safe? For example should we 'cheat' smokers by 'cheating' league tables? . . . should we use our superior knowledge of our products so that they give low league table positions but higher deliveries on human smoking?'

The documents provide a revealing insight into how individual company interests were suspended to protect the industry as a whole, and avoid restrictive legislation for as long as possible. An indication of just how successful that was is shown by a statement in 1971, that the companies expected a total ban on advertising by 1976. Tomorrow, the House of Lords will debate an amendment to the Government's Criminal Justice Bill to ban all tobacco advertising. It is unlikely to succeed.

Michael Prideaux, a spokesman for BAT, last night declined to comment on the specific allegations. 'There was a worldwide debate going on about smoking 30 years ago just as there is today, and I don't think that anyone should be surprised that there was a debate going on in the company.' When asked what BAT's current position on nicotine was, he replied that 'cigarette smoking' was habit-forming but not addictive, and on cancer, that although there were risks, there was no causal link.