BAT Industries instructed an American subsidiary to withhold unfavourable research it had commissioned on the health implications of tobacco. The decision was made as the Surgeon General - the US chief medical officer - was compiling the first government report condemning cigarettes as a health hazard.
A cable sent on 3 July 1963, by Anthony McCormick, an executive with BAT in London, instructed a senior employee of Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation, that 'it is too early to submit Batelle reports (Batelle Laboratories in Geneva, which did the research) to surgeon general's committee'.
The cable is one of more than 100 documents obtained by the New York Times which contradict the tobacco industry's claims over the past 30 years that cigarettes have not been proved harmful or that nicotine is addictive.
David Pollock, director of ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) claimed yesterday that BAT's decision to withhold information could constitute a criminal offence in Britain. 'It graphically illustrates the arrogance and criminal irresponsibility of the tobacco industry and appears to implicate BAT in Britain. This is absolutely in line with what we knew, that companies get together in a conspiracy to suppress information while pretending that they knew nothing and were doing everything they could to find out about the health aspects.'
Michael Prideaux, a spokesman for BAT, last night declined to comment on the report of the leaked documents. 'There were some documents stolen from Brown & Williamson by a person who was trying to blackmail them. I think that the New York Times, which is not renowned for its objectivity in these matters, have made a story by taking them out of context,' he said.
The report details a series of internal memos, letters and cables which show an intense debate among senior executives of B & W as to whether they should disclose to the Surgeon General what they knew about the hazards of cigarettes.
In one document, the company's general counsel said that its research had found that cigarettes caused or predisposed people to lung cancer, contributed to heart disease and might cause emphysema. The research was not made public, and, according to the newspaper, executives 'chose to . . . keep their research results secret, to stop work on a safer cigarette and to pursue a legal and public relations strategy of admitting nothing'.
The American Food and Drug Administration recently said that it would consider regulating cigarettes. To do this it would have to show beyond doubt that nicotine was addictive and that tobacco companies control the amount of nicotine in cigarettes to reinforce a smoker's addiction.
There are also a number of million dollar law suits pending against tobacco companies by smokers and their families, who blame tobacco for deaths and health problems.