How a PR firm helped establish America's cigarette century

by Allan M. Brandt, AlterNet

Note: The following excerpt is from chapter 5 of The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America by Allan M. Brandt, (Basic Books, 2007). The passage starts at the moment that the tobacco industry began to face serious scientific data suggesting the connection between lung cancer and cigarette smoke. The tobacco industry's response to hire a PR firm to fight the scientific evidence gave rise to the approach that industry and ideological groups use in their contemporary attacks on science.

By the time Hill & Knowlton took on the tobacco industry in 1953, it was already the most influential public relations firm in the United States, with a client list that included the steel, oil, and aircraft industries.

John W. Hill had cultivated close relationships with executives in these fields since the 1930s. And his firm had also worked with the liquor and chemical industries, areas where the health risks of products had emerged as issues in the past. He shared his clients' strong opposition to government intrusion into business. "The role of public relations in the opinion forming process is to communicate information and viewpoints on behalf of causes and organizations," Hill later wrote. "The objective is to inform public opinion and win its favor." He had quit smoking in the early 1940s for health reasons, but such concerns would not affect his work on behalf of his tobacco clients. For Hill, the tobacco industry had a public relations problem that his firm could effectively manage.

The tobacco industry had successfully used public relations since the 1920s to shape the meanings and cultural contexts of tobacco use. It was not surprising that in a moment of crisis, the industry would again deploy public relations as the antidote. But now these techniques were used not to change mores and social convention, but to distort and deny important scientific data. In the winter of 1953-54, the industry crossed a legal and moral line by entangling itself in the manipulation of fundamental scientific processes. There would be no easy route back to legitimacy.

Hill immediately recognized that the principal public relations approach of the industry would require strict collaborative action. Even as the companies continued to vie for market share among their respective brands, it was imperative that their in-house public relations offices present a united front in the critical domain of health and science. Hill & Knowlton's operatives expressed particular skepticism about the role of advertising in addressing the industry's crisis. "Some bright boy from Madison Avenue," one staffer noted, could "spoil the confidence building." Hill's skepticism concerning advertising reflected two central insights. The public confidence the industry sought could not be achieved through advertising, which was self-interested by definition. Second, it would be crucial for the industry to assert its authority over the scientific domain; science had the distinct advantage of its reputation for disinterestedness. ...

Hill and his colleagues set to work to review a full range of approaches open to them. Dismissing as shortsighted the idea of mounting personal attacks on researchers or simply issuing blanket assurances of safety, they concluded instead that seizing control of the science of tobacco and health would be as important as seizing control of the media. It would be crucial to identify scientists who expressed skepticism about the link between cigarettes and cancer, those critical of statistical methods, and especially those who had offered alternative hypotheses for the cause of cancer. Hill set his staff to identifying the most vocal and visible skeptics.

These people would be central to the development of an industry scientific program in step with its larger public relations goals. Hill understood that simply denying the harms of smoking would alienate the public. His strategy for ending the "hysteria" was to insist that there were "two sides." ... This strategy -- invented by Hill in the context of his work for the tobacco industry -- would ultimately become the cornerstone of a large range of efforts to distort scientific process in the second half of the twentieth century.

Individual tobacco companies had sought to compile information that cast doubt on the smoking-cancer connection even before Hill & Knowlton got involved. A. Grant Clarke, an Esty advertising [company] employee on loan to R.J. Reynolds, announced to other industry executives in November 1953 that the company had formed a "Bureau of Scientific Information" to "combat the propaganda which is being directed at the tobacco industry." At the same time, American Tobacco began to collect the public statements of scientists who had expressed skepticism about the research findings indicting tobacco. The company's public relations counsel, Tommy Ross, understood that it would be critical to create questions about the reliability of the new findings and to attack the notion that these studies constituted "proof" of the relationship of smoking to cancer. The resulting "White Paper" was a compendium of statements by physicians and scientists who questioned the cigarette-lung cancer link. When Hill & Knowlton started to shape and implement its PR strategy, the White Paper became fundamental to those efforts.

Following the December 15 meeting that formally brought Hill & Knowlton into the picture, its executives spent the next two weeks meeting with various industry staff. During this time, Hill & Knowlton operated in full crisis mode. Executives and staff cancelled all holiday plans as they worked to frame and implement a full-scale campaign on behalf of the industry. They apparently made no independent attempt to assess the state of medical knowledge; nor did they seek informed evaluations from independent scientists. Their role was limited to serving the public relations goal of their client.

During these meetings, both Hill & Knowlton staffers and tobacco executives continued to voice the conviction that the industry's entire future was threatened by the medical and scientific findings linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer and the consequent widespread public anxieties about smoking and health." Because of the serious nature of the attack on cigarettes and the vast publicity given them in the daily press and in magazines of the widest circulation, a hysteria of fear appears to be developing throughout the country," Hill wrote in an internal memo. "There is no evidence that this adverse publicity is abating or will soon abate." According to his media intelligence, at least four additional major periodicals (Look Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Woman's Home Companion, and Pageant) were currently planning articles on smoking and health.

It was apparently Hill who hit on the idea of creating an industry-sponsored research entity. Ultimately, he concluded, the best public relations approach was for the industry to become a major sponsor of medical research. This tactic offered several crucial advantages. The call for new research implied that existing studies were inadequate or flawed. It made clear there was "more to know,"and it made the industry seem a committed participant in the scientific enterprise rather than a detractor. The industry had, as noted, supported some individual research in recent years, but Hill's proposal offered the potential of a research program that would both be controlled by the industry yet promoted as independent.

This was a public relations masterstroke. Hill understood that simply giving money to scientists offered little opportunity to shape the public relations environment. The very nature of controlling and managing information in public relations stood in marked contrast to the scientific notion of unfettered new knowledge. Hill and his clients had no interest in answering a scientific question; their goal was to maintain vigorous control over the research program to utilize "science" in the service of public relations. After tobacco executives proposed forming a "Cigarette Information Committee" dedicated to defending smoking against the medical findings, Hill argued aggressively for adding research to the committee's title and agenda. "It is believed," he wrote, "that the word 'Research' is needed in the name to give weight and added credence to the Committee's statements."Hill understood that his clients should be viewed as "embracing" science rather than dismissing it.

Hill also advised the industry that continued competitive assertions about the health benefits of particular brands would be devastating. Instead, the industry needed a collective research initiative to demonstrate its shared concern for the public. Rather than using health research to create competitive products as they had been doing, the companies needed to express -- above all else -- their commitment to public wellbeing. Hill believed that the competitive fervor over health claims had harmed the industry's credibility. No one would look for serious information about health from an industry that was making unsubstantiated claims about its product.

The future of the industry would reflect its acceptance of this essential principle. From December 1953 forward, the tobacco companies would present a unified front on smoking and health; more than five decades of strategic and explicit collusion would follow. The industry pursued its strategy despite worries about recurring antitrust claims. Although its lawyers would later claim that the government was informed of and approved the Plaza Hotel meeting on December 14, it is worth noting that U.S. Assistant Attorney General Stanley Barnes advised that the industry support independent research by a third party. As Hill & Knowlton operative Carl Thompson explained, Judge Barnes told him that an independent approach "might be smarter," both "to eliminate the question of getting involved in anti-trust difficulties" and "to lend authenticity to the case." But the need to control the scientific message took precedence. By the time Thompson spoke to Barnes, the companies were already fully committed to the establishment of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, an organization that would be shaped by Hill & Knowlton to serve the industry's collective interests.

Hill carefully outlined the plans for a research program before a single scientist was consulted. The utility of such a strategy was its apparent commitment to "objective" science and its search for the "truth." As Carl Thompson argued, "A flamboyant campaign against the anti-smoking propagandists would unquestionably alienate much of the support of the moderates in both scientific and lay publics." Instead, tobacco companies had to respect the moral valence of science in American culture at mid-century. If science now threatened the industry, the industry must "secure" science.

The companies' first public action, under the direction of Hill & Knowlton, was to produce a public statement of their collective intentions. In the last weeks of 1953, Hill & Knowlton drafted "A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers" that sought to establish the industry as reliable, responsible, and fully committed to the public's interest.The "Frank Statement, "as it would come to be known, brilliantly represented Hill's essential strategy. It announced:

We accept an interest in people's health as a basic responsibility, paramount to every other consideration in our business. We believe the products we make are not injurious to health. We always have and always will cooperate closely with those whose task it is to safeguard the public health. The Frank Statement was a triumph of modern PR. It reassured smokers by promising them that the industry was absolutely committed to their good health.

The statement went on to announce the creation of the collaborative research entity, the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC):

We are pledging aid and assistance to the research effort into all phases of tobacco use and health. This joint financial aid will of course be in addition to what is already being contributed by individual companies.

Such reassurances became characteristic even as the scientific evidence indicting cigarettes grew in strength, sophistication, and professional acceptance. The Frank Statement represented the industry as serious, authoritative, and judicious -- committed without exception to the public's well-being. If there is a problem, it implied, the cigarette manufacturers would solve it, expeditiously and scientifically. The industry had seized the controversy and made it its own.

In retrospect, it is especially impressive that less than three weeks after the initial Plaza Hotel meetings, Hill & Knowlton had not only devised a major new strategic approach, but announced it to the media. Signed by the top executives from the major tobacco manufacturers (except for Liggett & Myers), several smaller companies, and growers, the Frank Statement appeared on January 4, 1954, as an advertisement in 448 newspapers in 258 cities. This advertisement and the establishment of the TIRC, the industry hoped, would calm the crisis. Hill & Knowlton executive E. C. Read urged restraint in the days following the announcement, noting that there was "far more danger of fanning the flames by making too many statements. ... Now that one good statement is out from the committee, I believe the controversy should be given every chance to die a natural death."

article originally published at

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey