The Greening of Big Tobacco


“Instinctively we caught the spirit of the times. It was the era when Rachel Carson’s book on the environment came out. It was an era when the people on our planet became aware. It was an era of the freedom movement-when the young people, the students during the 60s were protesting. The Marlboro advertising symbolized a free spirit who was not chained to a time-clock, it symbolized freedom without being controlled by a computer. On the other hand, our advertising fit into the idea of nature that was clean and unpolluted, so we reached the wishes and longings of many environmentalists, tramps, and adventurers.”

Georg Weisman, The Marboro Story
Director Emeritus, Philip Morris.


In May of 2007, near the eve of Rachel Carson’s 100th birthday, as Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md) was preparing a congressional bill that would honor the iconic environmental activist, there was sudden surge of opposition. The issue was genocide. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot­ Rachel Carson dwarfed them all, according to The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Sun, and New York Times Magazine. Over decades, they had run opinion pieces by authors associated with rightwing think tanks suggesting she was responsible for killing one child every 15 seconds, three million people annually, and over one hundred million since 1972. Her personal responsibility for the US ban on DDT allegedly caused untold deaths in the developing world where restrictions on pesticide hampered agriculture and set off a chain reaction of needless environmental regulations that threatened economic freedom. The issues brought up in 2007 were not in any way new claims or new findings, just recycled accusations from those papers , but it was enough.

Cardin pulled his bill because pro-DDT Senator Tom Coburn (R-Ok) threatened to block it. Why so much fuss over a symbolic act and who was behind it all?

Grassroot activists, bloggers, and scientists lit up their glowboxes, especially the greens who have always been the closest readers of rightwing smear campaigns. Tim Lambert, a computer scientist at the University of New South Wales and widely heralded “expert” on DDT thought he had the answer. The only force evil enough to attack his hero Rachel Carson was Big Tobacco. He began to search the public archive of Tobacco Legacy Archive, a collection of formerly secret company documents released only recently thanks to the court cases surrounding their products.

Some of the story Lambert got right. In 1998, the new Director-General of the World Health Organization, Gro Harlem Brundtland had established the Tobacco-Free Initiative, an effort to establish an international treaty to enhance tobacco control and promote public health initiatives to reduce smoking. Horrified, Big Tobacco did what they always did when their profits were in jeopardy. They paid third parties to attack their enemy. As Lambert realized, this worked best if some other issue, so-called larger issue could be used to distract attention, as had happened in the well-known efforts by the FDA to regulate nicotine.

But Lambert kept investigating. He announced that he had found the man behind the Carson smear- Roger Bate. Bate had started a fake grassroots group called Africa Fights Malaria and used it to criticize the WHO as implementing an inept approach to the malaria crisis. Bates attempted to get Big Tobacco to support the group, citing his ability to triangulate. The idea was to use the DDT issue to distract people from tobacco and the debate around environmental tobacco (ETS or second-hand smoke). The key elements of Africa Fights Malaria strategy were articulated as:

Simplify our arguments.

Pick issues on which we can divide our opponents and win. Make our case on our terms, not on the terms of our opponents – malaria prevention is a good example. …

this will create tensions between LDCs and OECD countries and between public health and environment.

The idea was to make the choice appear to be a question of people or birds. That such a strategy would appeal to Big Tobacco was certainly true, and Lambert found documents connecting Bate to Philip Morris, but that is where Lambert began to go awry.

Philip Morris never hired Bate, or at least there is no such record. There are only records proving that he tried to pitch a smear campaign but did not get far. In fact, there is some indication that Helmut Reif, Philip Morris’ Director of Science & Technology for it’s R&D facility in Neuchatel, Switzerland (Fabriques de Tabac Reunies), was not thrilled that Bate had approached other tobacco companies. More importantly, Reif had been successfully undermining the World Health Organization’s science throughout the 1980s and 1990s; and as one report suggests, he had developed a host of tactics far more sophisticated than the one’s Bate proposed. Reif had no need of a freelance shill and he no doubt knew better than to risk exposure by going head to head against someone like Rachel Carson, whether she was alive or not, especially by using an amateur.

Bate got tobacco money anyway, just not from Philip Morris and not until after the Africa Fights Malaria campaign. RJ Reynolds documents show that they paid (via a front group) for the publication of What Risk?, a book Bate edited that had a chapter on secondhand smoke. Even then, documents suggest RJR wanted to be sure they had their kind of person handling the chapter of ETS. Bate would later work for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an organization that Philip Morris had used during their expensive anti-FDA campaign, where he would oppose environmental regulations, but he was by no means an agent provocateur for Big Tobacco. He was just a free-market fundamentalist and avowed enemy of environmental regulation.

Though Bate denied that he was personally behind the Carson attack, he was attached to several rightwing think-tanks and would eventually join the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the force behind several laughable “CO2: We call it life” ads. Also, by the time Lambert had pieced together his story on the popular Grist environmental news site, The Union of Concerned Scientists had already exposed the tobacco industry’s role in denying global warming in January of 2007 and connected the Competitive Enterprise Group to both Big Tobacco and Big Oil.

The real impact of Lambert’s digging is that it reveals how Big Tobacco’s malfeasance had become so widely known that there is almost an army of freelancers like Roger Bate begging to get in on the game. Lambert is quite right, though, to point out that Bate was using Africa Fights Malaria to bolster his credentials with rightwing think-tanks. But, Lambert’s suggestion that Big Tobacco is a monolithic entity so greedy and corrupt that it willingly takes on its enemies in bold, public fashion is at best a distraction. True, it has been the case from time to time, as Alan Brandt made clear in The Cigarette Century, that Philip Morris will embrace flamboyant tactics such as embracing the bill of rights, even arranging to distribute copies of it to undermine anti-smoking activists. But the bulk of Big Tobacco’s strategy has been to work in the shadows, using its own PR firms, its own “safe science” advocates.

Even when Big Tobacco has suffered major setbacks, they have striven to maintain their invisibility, creating a corporate culture arguably as secretive as the CIA and a business model of undermining efforts to expose their other damage. Tobacco is without a doubt one of the most destructive plants on the planet even before it hits the lungs. Only when anti-tobacco advocates understand how the tobacco industry has deflected notice of these other evils will they be able to widen the war. And the environment is good place to start because it is easy to document and already a hot issue.

“The time is now for anti-tobacco advocates and environmentalists to unite,” according to Judith McKay, senior policy consultant for the World Health Organization. If so, then it is crucial to x-ray the secret documents and see how Big Tobacco has been able to keep environmental threats separate from public health concerns, and keeping their actions as opaque as possible.

Big Tobacco hardly twitched on the release of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. They were certainly aware of the book. They did not, however, attack it or fear it might draw attention to their own massive use of pesticide. They embraced it through the public relations firm of Hill & Knowlton, Inc., one of the most notorious PR firms in the world having played a hand in everything from greenwashing the chemical industry to deceiving the US to the start of the first Gulf War. Confidential documents reveal that they boasted to the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC) about how they had influenced the content of several science journalists covering tobacco issues.

The TIRC was an industry funded entity that granted awards to study the link between smoking and disease. In effect, it was part of a four-decade effort to spread scientific disinformation about the link, but as these minutes from Hill & Knowlton reveal, they liked their doubt cast in nonscientific terms as well. Hill & Knowlton had a long going effort to influence media coverage of tobacco issues, but they also liked to find opportunities to contrast the tobacco industry with other problem industries. One of the jobs Hill & Knowlton was most proud of concerned a journalist named George Dusheck, who was not writing about tobacco at all, but reviewing Silent Spring. After consulting with H & K, Dusheck inserted a passage about the tobacco industry into his review:

The reaction of the pesticide industry (to the book) is a sharp contrast to that of the tobacco industry, when it faced what it feared was an economic threat from the American Cancer Society’s report of smoking and lung cancer.

The tobacco companies did not panic, did not abuse ACS scientists as writers of science fiction horror stories, did not seek to influence any newspaper’s publications or handling of the story.

They did create a Tobacco (Industry) Research Committee headed by a respected scientist, Clarence Cook Little, which has worked quietly and with adequate funds to get at the cause of lung cancer.

In doing so it has got its viewpoint before the public without hysteria. And it has continued to sell cigarettes-more cigarettes today than in 1954 when the ACS findings were first reported.

The Duschekexample proves both more typical of Big Tobacco’s modus operandi and more enlightening than the Bate/Carson episode. Of course Clarence Cook Little was exactly the kind of shill anti-tobacco forces love to vilify and rightfully so. Few have done more to undermine the concept of “sound science” than he. But here he appears the voice of reason and moderation. What is more noteworthy, however, is how the missteps of the chemical industry are used as an occasion for contrast with the tobacco industry. The tobacco industry appears socially responsible, prudent, and respectful of its opposition. Even more remarkable is the fact that Silent Spring was almost devoid of tobacco references. Carson had mentioned- almost as an aside-that arsenic content in tobacco increased six hundred percent since the mid-1940s as result of DDT remaining in the soil even after its use on tobacco had ceased. Her point was simply that pesticide residue remained in the soil and was in no way critical of tobacco itself. There was no necessity to bring the tobacco industry into the review unless the intention was to substitute one health crisis for another, and deflect attention from Big Tobacco’s connection to the pesticide issue entirely.

Amusingly enough, in 1964, a stockholder wrote to A.H. Galloway, the president of RJ Reynolds about Silent Spring. The stockholder suggested the book might be helpful. He wanted the company to fund the natural foods movement or what is now thought of as organic or local food movements. He thought doing so would distract from the crusades against the golden leaf. No doubt environmentalists like Lambert would have preferred that Big Tobacco follow that more salacious and more risky route. Should RJR have distributed the book or promoted it, it might easily have caused readers to wonder about what they were really smoking. But even if RJR had done so quietly and with plausible deniability, it would have been entirely consistent with the industry’s pattern of divorcing public health from larger environmental issues, and in particular, its pattern of triangulation. It seems, as is often the case, the stockholders understood the business model well before the business’ critics.



Even the best attempt to link tobacco with environmental crisis has garnered little attention: the January 2007 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, for example, is arguably the best and boldest salvo on record. That report documented, much more carefully than British journalist George Monbiot’s recent work Heat, how Big Oil is now using not only Big Tobacco’s disinformation techniques to contest global warming, but also the very same public relations firms, and in many cases the same bogus scientists. However, subsequent UN reports on the need to act now include not one word about the 1 billion people slated to die from cigarettes and certainly not a word about the well-documented role of the tobacco industry as a leading cause of deforestation, desertification, and thus global warming.

Well-documented is not well told, it seems, especially when the subject is disaster. The task is not to just tell the story about how Big Tobacco used deception in both health and environmental matter, but to show how Big Tobacco managed to separate health and the environment in the public discourse insofar as their products were concerned.

An internal Philip Morris memo from 1996 shows the general trend continued long after the health risks had become clear. In discussing the increasing pressure on corporations to pay for the environmental damage their product manufacturing might cause, an unidentified Philip Morris executive writes:

There has been a recent report of the President’s Commission on Sustainable Development which we’re concerned about. There’s also a U.N. group looking at this.

One big issue is the ICC (International Chamber of Commerce ) Charter for Sustainable Development. PM is the only major company not to sign it. Why? Because it equates environment with health, and obviously PM doesn’t want to put itself in a position of saying we won’t sell products that have health implications to their consumers.

The Philip Morris statement could easily describe the modus operandi of the entire industry since the early 1970s, a time in which health professionals had largely agreed that smoking itself was the cause of many diseases, but during which the controversy around ETS (“environmental tobacco smoke” or secondhand smoke), was just beginning.

As tobacco historian Alan Brandt points out in The Cigarette Century, Philip H. Abelson, the editor of Science became one of the first and most prominent voices in the United States to describe secondhand smoke as “air pollution,” in 1967. Abelson specifically placed emphasis on the fact that nonsmokers often had no choice about accepting its risks. That emphasis seems prescient today given that so much of the controversy around smoking has hinged on the fact smokers have felt they were only endangering themselves.

But Abelson was one man sitting on high, an elite editor. He could have been neutralized with methods like the ones Hill & Knowlton had bragged about to the TIRC or with the usual quote mining that is the modus operandi of oppositional research. Abelson’s finest contribution was to inspire grassroots activists such as GASP (Group Against Smoking Pollution). By virtue of their very name they deployed the word “pollution” in public discourse more than anyone else. During the 1970s, they were the ones who pushed and got local laws to restrict smoking. Of course, they were somewhat offset at least initially by Astroturf organizations (fake grassroots groups) such as the smokers-rights groups funded by Big Tobacco. To be clear, the smoker’s rights groups were not a pure PR invention. There was legitimate anger among smokers as they began to feel more and more like third-class citizens. But if they found smoking turned them into pariahs, it had as much to do with the flimsy defense that tobacco companies offered as it did anything relating to a New Puritanism.

To counteract secondhand smoke concerns, Big Tobacco first produced reports suggesting that building ventilation would offset indoor smoke. The suggestions ranged from simply opening windows to installing air filters in offices. However, by 1981, thanks to the National Academy of Sciences, the industry could no longer effectively compartmentalize this issue. By the end of the 1980s, ETS had been implicated in everything from children’s earaches, childhood asthma, cervical cancer (often in nonsmoking wives of smokers), sudden infant death syndrome, and cardiopulmonary disorders. Even Philip Morris lawyers conceded this and more in 1994. Even as smoking was banned on airplanes and other common areas, the industry kept hoping to keep the issue compartmentalized as an issue of nuisance and personal decorum, especially in the US and the UK.

When Philip Morris began to reflect on who and what threatened their efforts to divorce the environment from health issues, it issued an “Executive Summary of Paper on PM Environmental Giving” that acknowledged that it was the largest contributor to the nation’s packaging stream and that it was well aware that environmental activists were beginning to make cigarette executives uncomfortable. It insisted:

Grassroots mobilizations and environmental politics are not to be underestimated. Our products have been boycotted by environmentally-concerned groups as diverse as state Public Interest Research Groups, recycling advocates, and the “Wise Use” movement.

What is striking is the concern over boycotted products, rather than in mobilizing for local laws and regulations that was historically the real catalyst for Philip Morris’ decline in stature. The second striking aspect of this report is how throughout it repeatedly states that appearing green is crucial to sustaining their business model. It also reveals that by 1994, citizens had come to regard the environment as “second only to guns and crime.” In essence, the furor over ETS did not rank as a major concern either to Philip Morris or what it called “citizens.” Furthermore, the stakes would forever seem higher if opposition were focused on the environment: “Everything we produce relies on agricultural production.” This document even acknowledges that Philip Morris’ Corporate Affairs had a five-year plan that emphasized environment, image, and corporate contributions. Why then did people like Ableson or even GASP not then widen the terms of the debate? Why did they not start investigating exactly what kind of environmental contributions the companies had in mind? Or, put another way, why did they not attack the very idea of Philip Morris as a legitimate business? Were they exhausted even in victory from the prolonged battle over ETS?

Activist-journalist Alexander Cockburn, who had written about Big Tobacco’s impact on developing countries in the 1970s, described the problem like this, “The left generally didn’t get involved in taking on the tobacco companies because they all smoked like chimneys, and many still do.” But part of the answer might also do with the experts, who felt perhaps hemmed-in by their field of expertise, usually health related. But what experts do best is draw attention to the unseen externalities, the fallout and the spillover such as the role tobacco plays in deforestation and global warming. They could have reached out to people involved in those struggles. If the truth is told, though, the greens and anti-tobacco advocates were behind the curve by 1977, not 1994.

Secret documents from that year reveal that already Big Tobacco had anticipated a wider assault on its environmental impact and particularly that its environmental impact could be easily shown to affect people on a global scale. Nowhere perhaps is this clearer than in inter-office correspondence from 1977 in which Murray D. Rosenberg briefed Philip Morris executives on the “greenhouse effect.”

Rosenberg credited Helmut Wakeham, Vice President and Director of Research & Develop at the time, and arguably one of the most cold-blooded characters in the entire tobacco saga, for anticipating the issue. Rosenberg’s report tutored the other executives on the potential threat to the tobacco industry.

Unlike Big Oil’s contention that carbon dioxide is a natural component of the atmosphere and thus harmless, Rosenberg’s report acknowledged that man-made carbon dioxide is a dire threat to life on the planet, particularly the amount produced from fossil fuels. Rosenberg calculated the annual contribution of cigarette-produced carbon dioxide at 0.0018% of the annual total generated by man. The 0.0018% figure while seeming to exonerate the tobacco industry could easily be shown as incomplete and that is probably why it was never released to the public­ why attract attention to an issue no one was paying monitoring? The figure did not take into account issues like deforestation, paper waste, fuel used to ship tobacco and cure it, nor did he mention that smoking also releases methane, another greenhouse gas.

Currently, the anti-tobacco advocates estimate smoking across the globe generates about 2.6 billion kg of CO2 and 5.2 billion kilograms of methane every year. It takes one acre of forest to cure (dry) an acre of tobacco , which is quite a separate calculation from the amount of forest consumed in packaging, newsprint ads, and paper to wrap the cigarettes. In Uruguay and South Korea and Uruguay, forty percent of the annual deforestation is tobacco-related. In Malawi, where only three percent of farmers grow tobacco, almost 80 percent of the trees cut down for curing it.

These are more recent numbers than Rosenberg’s but even then, the best deforestation estimate is over a decade old. That is precisely the problem. It’s safe to say that by the late 1970s, anti-tobacco advocates had fallen behind, drained in part by the necessary struggle against second-hand smoke, and unaware that Big Tobacco anticipated a much larger war.

Philip Morris, for example, claimed in a 1997 document it gave its first environmental grant “to help create Keep America Beautiful,” in 1956. In fact, the organization began in 1953. Nevertheless, Philip Morris received a letter from K.A.B. in 2000 that allowed them to maintain the language “founding member” for its timeline advertisements. The discrepancy would hardly be worth mentioning except that Keep America Beautiful was from the start a greenwash vehicle started by business executives in the beverage and packing industry. At the time, they were afraid Congress might start requiring them to be responsible for the litter their products contributed. Though often credited as a successful anti-litter advertising campaign, Keep America Beautiful was really a lobbying arm of the packaged products industries, designed to make those industries look responsible, names and dates forever not withstanding. According to Wally Lamb’s investigation of secret tobacco documents, Keep America Beautiful’s own anti-butts policy was molded by Philip Morris and even then reluctantly embraced. This is but one example of the industry’s attempts to enhance its opacity even as it tried to address the question of litter that was just starting to be raised.

Even without the secret documents available today, Keep America Beautiful’s famous crying “Indian” billboards and commercials should have been enough to build some outrage. The history of 19th century conservation is the history of not only the genocide of Native Americans, but also the ecocide of the Great Plains and the overgrazing of pastoral lands by westward settlers. It may be that to oppose the corporations sponsoring those ads would have required a collective introspection few imperial nations ever approach. Nevertheless the exploitation of the crying Indian on that 1971 billboard was undeniable proof that among Americans, the only environment that mattered was the one beneath their own feet.

Outside the US, where secondhand smoke had hardly been a mobilizing issue, there were rumblings about deforestation and environmental devastation as early as 1914, when World War I brought smoking into vogue.


In lesser developed countries where increasingly more and more tobacco was grown only to end up being shipped to the US and England for processing, indigenous people noticed that the crop altered their traditional agricultural heritage. One of the earliest mentions of how tobacco affected Africa comes from the Director of Agriculture in Nyasaland (currently Malawi). He cited the tobacco industry’s environmental hazards as early as 1914 when he declared:

“Eucalyptus is undoubtedly the fuel tree for Nyasaland and steps are now being taken by the Chief Forest Officer … to establish fuel plantations in the villages under the various chiefs and headmen to try and put a stop to the rapid deforestation.”

There are a few more scattered mentions of the problem in the developing nations after this one, but almost entirely they consist of anecdotes like the one above. The first concerted wave of documented, quantitative attention by Westerners does not occur until the 1980s.

The sporadic attention given to the issue in the 1970s on issues such as deforestation, pesticide use, and the industry’s effects on the “third world” was met by an active campaign to undermine the few statistics being compiled by anti-tobacco forces, most vociferously in the pages of Tobacco Briefing, an industry publication devoted almost exclusively to confronting environmental research into tobacco. One of their main tactics was elementary use of misdirection.

For example, in order to minimize reports on forest acreage lost to tobacco farming, Tobacco Briefing would cite a greater amount of wood lost to fuel cooking in lesser-developed countries, thus finessing the fact that cooking is essential to feeding humans and tobacco is not. Just as with the Rosenberg report never being released to the public, despite its seeming exoneration of the tobacco industry, the propaganda within Tobacco Briefing remained largely in-house.

Big Tobacco understood clearly that fighting on the terrain of incomplete science and cooked numbers-while helpful to the morale and control of its subordinates such as growers and their advocates-opened them to jeopardy in the larger public discourse. It was better for Big Tobacco to attack its opponents from within more opaque institutions such as advertising regulative bodies. The anti-tobacco advocates, however, felt brash ads and salacious statistics would help them win the war for public opinion. Sometimes it would, but often they were all too willing to narrow their focus whenever Big Tobacco attacked from behind bureaucratic machinery.

A case of brash assault, followed by timid withdrawal began on June 5th, 1978 when an independent television agency in the UK broadcast a report by “World in Action,” roughly the UK equivalent to “20/20”. The event coincided with the publication of “Tobacco and the Third World: Tomorrow’s Epidemic?” by journalist Mike Muller, one of the first to draw mass attention to the industry’s environmental impact. Muller drew attention to many economic injustices in regard to tobacco farming such as the tobacco crops replacing food crops. He also produced eye-catching environmental statistics. He estimated that cigarette manufacturing machine use four miles of paper per hour to roll and package cigarettes.

But his most sensational statistic was that for every 300 cigarettes made in the developing world, one tree is burned in the curing process. The World Health Organization in 1980 (WHO) and the Word Bank in 1984 both reprinted the statistic. But in 1993 tobacco industry forces had sufficiently undermined its legitimacy that ads using it and likeminded statements were pulled from the air in the United Kingdom. “World in Action” continued for over a decade producing hard-hitting shows about the tobacco industry’s advertising to children and the dangers of secondhand smoke. It did not, however, return to the environmental impact of Big Tobacco, nor ever mention the occasional academic papers quietly piling up that held far harsher verdicts on Big Tobacco’s contribution to deforestation or environmental degradation.

The most glaring evidence that anti-tobacco forces had failed to embrace Muller’s innovation occurred in July of 1983 when Simon Chapman produced a 64 page pamphlet called The Lung Goodbye, A Manual of Tactics for Counteracting the Tobacco Industry in the 1980s. A deliciously noirish piece of agitprop full of concrete suggestions, the pamphlet contained not a word about expanding the fight to include environmental alliances; this was true despite Chapman’s insistence that the best tactic of all was to inflict constant scorn on the industry with the hope of “radicalizing the movement.” His suggestions were so aggressive that he felt compelled to remind readers that most of his tactics were legal. The omission of environmental alliances seems even more of historical significance given the fact that Simon Chapman, an Australian sociologist, would later win the World Health Organization’s World No Tobacco Day Medal in 1997, along with many other accolades. More importantly, he later produced Tobacco in the third world: a resource atlas in 1990. That publication, perhaps more than any other, marked the single strongest and most widely cited environmental assault on Big Tobacco to date. It contained an entire chapter dedicated to the issue, albeit culled from several admittedly thin but frequently cited sources. It also included references to other environmental issues such as overuse of pesticide as well as its debilitating effect on farmers. It certainly could have marked the moment when Big Tobacco became tagged an environmental menace. Instead it serves to document how little the issue had been studied.

In 1992, however, US Surgeon General Novello issued what the industry perceived as a denunciation of the deforestation claim, specifically the 300 to 1 statistic. It came almost ad hominem in a report issued primarily to address smoking and health in the Americas, and it occurred not in a section about the environment, but in a section on “economic externalities,” about which it was generally favorable to the industry as a whole. Still, Novello noted in no uncertain terms that data on tobacco and deforestation was relatively slim, often produced by the industry itself, and that most of it was out of date. Regardless, Novello, much to the industry’s delight, concluded “deforestation associated with tobacco curing cannot currently be considered a significant negative externality.” The statement, taken out of context, would quickly become a major talking point in tobacco industry publications such as Tobacco Briefing, published by the International Tobacco Growers Association (IGTA), a shadowy, quasi-governmental alliance organized around little more than the idea of actual growers.

Despite the fact that Novello clearly contradicted what the industry declared was the “definitive report,” the ITGA declared 300 to 1 statistic dead. It would resurface occasionally often in independent journalists’ broader stories about the tobacco industry, but anti-tobacco advocates simply passed over it in silence. They concentrated on fighting youth smoking and second-hand smoke almost exclusively throughout the 1990s.

What is remarkable, however, is that after the Surgeon General’s Report of 1992, rather than publicize the other damaging articles about tobacco and deforestation that began to come out, anti-tobacco advocates rarely returned to the theme.

Nevertheless, the industry’s targeting of children and the obfuscation they manufactured around secondhand smoke sufficiently damaged their image, and anti-tobacco advocates deserve a great deal of the credit for that. As result, during the 1980s until about 1992, the tobacco industry continued its meager environmental giving, as a glance through their annual reports reveals, but they remained reserved about publicizing it. Evidently, they did not want to overstate their environmental record and receive further scorn.


By 1993, the tobacco industry had to address deforestation more directly at least within the United Kingdom. An organization with a title more officious than official, the Health Education Authority (HEA) began a series of magazine ads that linked tobacco to the destruction of the rainforest. The timing seemed exactly right for an organization devoted largely to issues of youth smoking. Their target was a generation of kids growing up in the aftermath of Earth Day and “save the rainforest” campaigns. Artists such as Sting and a commercially resurgent, MTV-oriented Grateful Dead were prominent donors to rainforest campaigns at this time and their influence on fans and younger bands brought great visibility to the rainforest issue. None of the celebrities, however, drew attention to the role of the tobacco industry in deforestation. That fell to the rather puny HEA.

These ads are nearly impossible to track down, but they were pivotal from the point of view of the tobacco industry. From ITGA propaganda there remain hints about what the ads contained. For example, one slogan was “When tobacco companies burn the rainforest only one plant survives.” The plant in question was not, as one might expect, the tobacco plant, but the cigarette manufacturing plant; perhaps a slightly awkward play on words, but with visual aid, perhaps poignant overall.

The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority, the regulative entity charged with handling reckless promotional claims, (and prompted by the IGTA) ruled that the ads were too broad. Too many other factors and industries caused rainforest devastation. The law simply would not allow the type of scorn Simon Chapman favored to be piled on any business. As result, the Advertising Standards Authority pulled the ads and as confidential “media response” documents show, the tobacco industry was prepared to use the incident to intimidate other like-minded tree-hugging upstarts.

The HEA continued to push the deforestation issue and published a booklet in which it alleged 150 large trees were cut and burned down to cure one acre of tobacco. Perhaps so. The HEA also alleged that the average smoker thus causes one tree every two weeks to be felled. Here their bold assertions backfired because they assumed one tree per 5.56 kg of tobacco, equivalent to 5,600 cigarettes in two weeks time or 397 cigarettes each day. A smoker would then have to consume 12 cigarettes every hour for more than 33 hours in order to fulfill the HEA’s claims. This kind of bloated rhetoric opened the HEA up for what would become a typical IGTA attack. Not simply a matter of choosing a less outrageous number of trees per cigarette, the issue became a matter of why a health advocacy group should be able to pronounce on environmental concerns.

From that point on, the HEA dissipated, eventually swallowed by another entity called the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) and most importantly, it no longer focused on the intersection of health and the environment.

In retreating from the tobacco/environment debate, the HEA missed an opportunity to raise the stakes because nearly every document the industry produced in response to deforestation claims reiterated that wood was not the main source of curing fuel. Coal was. The logical move would have been to link tobacco curing not simply to deforestation, but to the greenhouse effect.

In a 2000 World Health Organization report outlining, among many other cloak-and-dagger episodes, how the IGTA undermined several tobacco control efforts within the UN, it becomes clear that the IGTA learned a great deal from the HEA episodes.

Essentially, the ITGA argued that health organizations had no business discussing business. Once again the signature tactic was triangulation. The IGTA was the tobacco industry’s greatest asset in forcing tobacco control outside the bounds of the WHO. The ECOSOC or UN Economic and Social Council became a rival of the WHO due to the IGTA’s relentless lobbying efforts. The best summation came from internal correspondence from British American Tobacco:

“Up until now, it has been the World Health Organization which has provided the major thrust in international anti-tobacco activities.

It has, however, been persuaded that some of the issues­particularly those to do with economic, environmental, and social aspects ­ are beyond its competence. We can therefore expect a number of UN agencies to get into the act. It is to be hoped that they do not bring to their participation any prejudicial anti-tobacco sentiments and that we can expect a rational and objective treatment of our common concerns.”

Of course, of the three areas mentioned here-economic, environmental, and social-the economic became central. By exaggerating the economic benefits of tobacco farming to lesser developed nations, Big Tobacco could easily foment more bureaucratic divisions, recasting health and environmental concerns as elitist concerns on the part of “First World” busy bodies. Anytime Big Tobacco could say, “Rich countries care about trees. Poor countries care about jobs,” it would do so, the Director of Agriculture in Nyasaland be damned. Needless to say, it was exactly along this set of reasoning that the smear job on Rachel Carson took place, and for that reason, excessively defending her against a baseless attack only reinforces the perception that rich countries look at the environment from a place of profound privilege. In this way, the tobacco industry was able to appear more leftwing, more socially conscious than its opponents.

Because of the history of bureaucratic infighting and because that infighting has been the result of dividing the economic, environmental, and social aspects of tobacco, Dr. Judith McKay, a senior policy advisor to the World Health Organization has argued, “Every tobacco meeting should have a sector on the environment, and every environmental meeting should have a section on tobacco. “Surely the logic at work in such a statement applies not only to the UN, but also to those mysterious radicals Simon Chapman, the doctor of scorn, sought to inspire.



Given not only the colossal environmental damage but also the history of cover-up perpetrated by the tobacco industry, a reasonable person might assume that any attempt by Big Tobacco to dive into green marketing would be a quixotic venture. But Big Tobacco knows no limits and nearly each company sooner or later test marketed the concept of environmentally friendly cigarettes.

They wanted to see if “green” products, even from a tobacco company, might sell, because as a Philip Morris document from 1994 put it, “Few issues today are as popular as The Environment” (italics mine). Popularity or profitability was tied to going green, at least according to Philip Morris’ pollsters. But even more bold is the opening talking point in their internal executive summary on environmental giving: “PM products are the largest contributor to the nation’s packaging waste stream and a major user of agricultural and water resources.” Everywhere else throughout Philip Morris’ executive summary, the words “competitive” and “expanding markets” surface as well as “sustainability.” Those are crucial points to keep in mind for anyone studying what Big Tobacco says its doing for the environment, especially in their annual reports or on their websites where every indication is given that they are first and foremost concerned not with profits or markets, but on sustainability. A close look at the environmental history of these corporations soon reveals that “sustainability” in this context means sustainability of its business model.

The most famous example of green marketing by a tobacco company suggest that the big multinationals were afraid that a couple of parvenus from Santa Fe might well be a challenge to the business paradigm. In 1982, The Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, drawing “inspiration” from the local Native American population started marketing Natural American Spirit cigarettes as “100% Additive-Free Tobacco.” They made claims about the organic content and thus its environmental sustainability. They also emphasized its lack of animal testing. And in the 2002, American Spirits were bought by Reynolds America for a chief’s ransom of $340 million.

In hindsight, American Spirits appears almost a modest effort at exploiting the category, and an unlikely target for one of the biggest tobacco companies since it brought attention to the fact that there were additives in their brands.

Nine years earlier, RJ Reynolds had already market tested the category of ecological cigarettes, and they learned from it that Americans, for the most part, had no idea there were additives in cigarettes at all. The “Ecology Program” as that round of testing was called, provides a peek at what appears to be a land donation program. There are no records of the program ever getting beyond initial planning nor can the subsequent phases be ascertained, though the documents suggest gradually moving beyond mere land conservation. Much can be surmised however, particularly when compared with Philip Morris’ later, similar, but more aggressive program, the Marlboro Conservancy. The Salem program, however, has historical importance because it shows Americans as early as 1973-smokers or not-relatively open to the idea of greening Big Tobacco. This was well before the industry’s image suffered its worse hits. It also reveals the themes that would guide this entire marketing direction for all the big companies, and most importantly, the potential for backlash:

More than three-fourths (79%) of the smokers and nearly two-thirds (65%) of the non-smokers expressed favorable attitudes toward the Ecology Program by rating the idea 70 degrees or above on a 0-100 thermometer scale. This compares quite favorably to the SALEM “Vacation Home” Sweepstakes which was also asked about for benchmark purposes (only 40% gave “Vacation Home” a favorable rating). Additionally, nearly twice as many smokers claimed they would participate in the Ecology Program as would in the Sweepstakesand over half (58%) said they would encourage other people as well as clubs and organizations they were members of to get involved.

When asked what they liked about the Ecology Program, most smokers (84%) said they liked the idea of preserving the land/environment. Other favorable comments of significance were: “shows people company is concerned” (24%); “makes people aware of land problems” (19%); and, “good for the ecology” (16%). A small number (11%) also said, “people are going to smoke-this gives them something constructive to do in connection with it.”

On the unfavorable side, some (18%) thought the promotion would encourage people to smoke, and an equal number thought it inconsistent that a cigarette company could “pollute” on the one hand and yet want to save land on the other. However, it is significant that only 2% of both smokers and non-smokers thought of the Ecology Program as simply an act in the Company’s self-interest, one that would help its imagenearly two-thirds (64%) of the smokers said that the program would enhance their feelings about the Company, and more than one-fourth (285) said their attitude toward SALEM would be more favorable.

The document ends with a footnote about the “Vacation Home” promotion being one of Salem’s best ever, drawing more than three million entries. Curious then that there is no record of its implementation of ecological programs either in the archives or on the internet, as the Salem ecology project test results suggested that the ecology program would be even more successful than the vacation home giveaway. Perhaps RJR was still nervous about a backlash should its execution falter (thus explaining the interest in American Spirits who had already got the marketing right). Or perhaps the lawyers had other suggestions about structuring a land conservation program, one that would enhance the opacity of the true nature of its contributions. One thing is clear: just like with Keep America Beautiful, any greenwash would be centered around the vague notion of protecting land, especially land that looks good in photographs. But enhancing the opacity of their real contributions would have also made sense. In fact, that is exactly what Philip Morris’ similar land conservation plan tried to do, enhance opacity, even when going green seemed even more certain to be profitable.

At first glance, Philip Morris’ Marlboro Conservancy with its “Keep it Wild” campaign seems a mere extension of Leo Burnett’s notorious Marlboro Country campaign. But where Marlboro Country was understated in its ecological overtones-as a place where tobacco’s dangers, health or environmental were never brought up because tobacco products themselves are natural- “Keep It Wild. Keep it Free.” was from inception a brash Young and Rubicam public relations firm invention. It evoked all the familiar associations with the American West, but true to the expansionist ideology inherent in that history, extended them; as Young and Rubicam documents say “‘Marlboro Country’ isn’t just ‘The West’, it’s any place still wild and free. These belong to everyone and each of us should do our part to help preserve it.” Its imagery was meant to evoke ideas of personal freedom and with the campaign’s “Keep it Free” component, it also resonated with Philip Morris’ Bill of Rights promotion, one of its earlier efforts to promote “smokers’ rights” efforts. The concept included features ranging from a “Save Your Butts” filter disposal program (no doubt a reaction to efforts to stop cigarette litter) to music festivals. In 1992, secrets documents show, they even considered creating a “Conservancy Rescue Team” that would be a Marlboro sponsored, SWAT team-like force that would aid in clean-up efforts in disaster areas. Consumers, presumably needing a reason to feel good about their nicotine habits, would be invited to participate. The “Marlboro Environmental SWAT Teams” would be called upon to perform “heroic” clean-ups and respond to natural disasters such as Hurricane Andrew. As one document put it, “There appears to be strong appeal for the idea of modern-day Marlboro Men performing strenuous ‘good deeds.'”

But there was much more to it than at first meets the eye. For one thing, “any place” it was not. Philip Morris thought only land in the US worthy of inclusion and the land purchased for the Conservancy would be made available for shooting Marlboro ads when the deal was structured. However, Philip Morris would not manage the land directly, preferring to gain legitimacy by teaming up with established “mainstream conservationist organizations” such as Ducks Unlimited, Worldwatch Institute, Nature Conservancy and Wildlife Habitat Enhancement Council. Even though these organizations would have some nominal say about which land to protect, consumers were also encouraged to nominate sites. Getting customers to communicate directly with the company and provide personal information that could further be used in marketing was central. To that end, PM would establish a UPC redemption program through which customers returned a portion of a cigarette box, not the whole box as would be appropriate for a recycling program. Customers would thereby gain access to a loyalty program of t-shirts and other logo-saturated products. Of course, this meant sharing personal information that would allow the company to “manage customers individually.” Thank you letters would be sent out with further promotions and whenever possible other corporations would be encouraged to also contribute, particularly those with more wholesome images whose logos on a “thank you” letter or in other promotional material would appear along side that of Philip Morris, allowing PM to garner some of the other companies’ prestige, all of which would immunize them from any legal issues that came up in managing the land.

This last point was especially critical since it would be open to recreation, generally of the sort known to be environmentally disastrous­dirt bikers, three wheel ATVs, Jet Skiers and hunters, all of whom would likely be smokers whose butts have been known to start massive wildfires. In fact, cigarettes are the major cause of fires, in homes and in the wild.

But this was no concern with the preferred legal structure. As explained in internal Philip Morris documents, a “conservation easement” would make Philip Morris literally fire proof, and legally inoculated because Philip Morris would not be the owner. Not only would such a legal entity protect Philip Morris from liability, but it also had the added benefit of falling under “brand management,” rendering it a business expense for tax purposes and protecting Philip Morris from the type of reporting requirements a private foundation would incur. The land itself often belonged first to a family estate or trust. By placing the land within a conservation easement, the family, such as the Gunnisons, who were one of the first beneficiaries of Philip Morris’ plan, would be allowed to maintain access to the land while saving on estate taxes for successive generations-in some cases, making the difference between a family keeping the land or being forced to sell it. As it turns out, this legal contrivance proved profitable for the PR firms as well. One internal document revealed that of the proposed $40 million promised by Philip Morris to funding conservation easements over five years, $18 million (45%) would go to “Communications” and “Media PR Plan.”

From the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi to the halls of Tripoli, no one could rope customers like the Marlboro Man. The conservation plan was clearly nothing more than a marketing campaign designed to corral its customers, increase sales, and keep political pressure on the other side of the Mississippi. Today, under the name Marlboro Foundation, the company flies loyal customers in to places such as The Crazy Mountain Ranch in Montana, a stone’s throw from the Yellowstone River, for a week of horseback riding, fly-fishing, and dress-up. Customers often take photos of their free vacation and gush about their experience on weblogs, essentially creating a fresh avenue of unpaid advertising.


To this day, most consumers-smokers or not-do not realize that today’s cigarette is a careful construct of high technology and agribusiness, as complexly designed as an Apple Iphone and as consistent as the taste of McDonalds. Whether in Belfast or Beijing, each of the trillions of cigarettes manufactured every year is engineered to taste like every other one in the pack, and just like the ones in the pack a year earlier, whether the tobacco comes from Brazil or Malawi or the Philippines. But even for those who understand the technological sophistication of these products and their designers, all too frequently hope emerges that a technological solution might be found through which the cigarette curse might finally be exorcised.

Of course, chief proponents of such hope have been the tobacco companies themselves with their alleged concern with “sound science,” by which they usually mean their science. For that reason, the industry’s history of undermining its own scientists seems germane. For instance, William Farone-the top “applied” scientist for Philip Morris for eight years during the 1980s-researched, oversaw and consulted on at least three promising avenues to a “safer cigarette”.

The first one was to increase tobacco de-nitrification. Tobacco leaves are put through a process called crystallization that removes 90% of the toxic nitrates from the leaf, although leaving plenty of other types of toxins. Farone believe he could remove the other 10% of the nitrates and thus significantly reduce the toxic nitrosamines produced when the cigarette burns.

The second project involved several attempts at genetically modifying tobacco. Some alterations included producing tobacco plants with reduced nitrosamines. Others prevent it from picking up the radioactive element polonium 210 that occurs naturally in all tobacco. Still others involved reducing nitrosamine byproducts when the plant metabolizes fertilizer. In the case of polonium 210, the belief was that it occurred in fertilizers with minute amounts of uranium series degradation products as well as in certain soils. One of Farone’s subordinates, a Dr. Rosene, experimented not only with altered tobaccos, but also with alternate fertilizers and soils. He was able remove some radioactivity, but Philip Morris killed the projects sometime between 1984 and 1994.

The third project that Farone lead and believed most promising was a cobalt-based filter that reduced carbon monoxide considerably, but it involved the consumer attaching the filter to the cigarette after opening the package. Philip Morris preferred but never produced an internal filter that people did not need to think about installing after the sale. Still, as early as 1981 or 1982 Farone proved he could reduce a key toxin and was amazed that, even as an intermediary step, the product never saw the light of day. It’s hard to believe some marketing expert did not see the potential as an “upsell,” a product placed next to the main product often to stimulate impulse buys. The filter could easily have sold along side lighters, matches, and cigarette cases. A segment of the tobacco market loves accessories such as expensive lighters and cigarette cases. This product had marketable potential, especially among more health conscious consumers, at least if all the marketing studies Philip Morris had relied on in the past are considered. Every one of them indicated seemingly safer products and seeming more environmentally-friendly products held wide appeal, but the industry never wanted to imply its products were not safe because it would open them to legal jeopardy.

A fourth, more controversial, solution was a cigarette entirely composed of cellulose. Cytrel, the pure cellulose material, could then be enhanced by adding purified nicotine, according to Farone. Pure nicotine had other benefits- lower nitrates and lower nornicotine, another toxic alkaloid closely related to nicotine and sometimes used as a pesticide.

Farone understood clearly none of these cigarettes was going to taste right, but he saw that as only another technological hurdle, and one the company was entirely familiar with since it had been adding sugars, whiskey, and other flavorings for years. Farone was confident taste could be improved but he quickly realized that releasing a “safer cigarette” would crush sales of the top line product Marlboro and spook Wall Street. By the time he realized the company had no interest in his research as anything but a PR stunt (an accessory to their “sound science” image) and that the industry’s lawyers would never stomach those products anyway, he was fired.

The saga of the quest for a safer cigarette, regardless of its viability, reveals the history of the industry’s technological suppression, but it is only a slice of the overall picture. The industry has a further history of technological malpractice, and again, the IGTA plays a prominent role.

For years, the tobacco industry’s use of wood to cure tobacco has drawn attention to the resulting deforestation. The IGTA, however, has been countering that “the tobacco-growing sector accounted for less than 1% of all wood consumed in the developing world.” The statistic was widely disputed, but what is important is the IGTA’s own explanation:

Fuels used to cure the types of tobacco which need an artificial source of heat include coal, oil, gas and wood. The most widely used fuel for curing is coal, although oil, gas and wood are also popular energy sources, especially in Europe, North America, Latin America and Africa.

Coal, oil, gas and wood are all used to cure leaf. Evidently, the IGTA never saw the internal Philip Morris report by Rosenberg, although it is hard to imagine they would accept any other source citing of fossil fuel use as the leading cause of manmade greenhouse gasses. The defense against the charge that curing tobacco uses too much wood is simple then: more mountain top removal, more hydrocarbons, and more plundering of the forests to run gas pipelines, and, of course, hoping no one notices that each of these alternatives is more expensive than burning whatever foliage lay at hand.

In response to charges of deforestation, the IGTA’s mode has been to point out that tobacco is grown only six months out of the year, leaving the newly deforested regions available for other crops half the year, although this raises supply of these alternative crops, thus lowering prices. Furthermore, the IGTA has long contended that tobacco is essentially a good “starter” crop, the care of which will teach farmers in the developing the skills they need for other crops. The insinuation is that a little deforestation is a reasonable trade off since tobacco growing will teach farmers “to treat all their crops with similar care.”

Turning aside from the paternalism for a moment, what is most obviously missing in the IGTA’s discussion of curing is that there was one technology that could have made curing much more sustainable- the invention of the solar barn. Not even when addressing barn modifications such as better sealing furnace doors that would enhance fuel efficiency did the industry seem particularly compelled to assist farmers in paying for the better technology. In fact, secret documents show that when Philip Morris briefly instituted a grant program called the Curing Barn Conversion Fund for farmers it was primarily for corporate farmers in the US and the impetus was not fuel savings but reduction of nitrosamine. RJ Reynolds actually instigated the entire industry move and encouraged the industry to assist with financing. This clearly undercuts the declared rationale for not instituting solar barns-that they were too expensive.

According to B.K. Huang who invented the Quonset hut shaped solar curing barn in 1974, Tthe first prototype used 25% less energy and still flue-cured, but Huang’s modifications eventually cut energy use to 50%. It was expensive at about $10,000, but it had features to offset the price. Since tobacco is grown typically six months out of the year, it could convert to greenhouse for other crops or even be used to dry peanuts, thus producing income while other barns would essentially just sit there unused. That such barns were never built is even more curious given that the industry made claims that designing more efficient curing barns was a priority. In fact, the seminal, if slightly paternalistic exposé on tobacco’s full range of damages “The Smoke Blows South” explained that even though a British American Tobacco spokesman declared the solar barn as providing a good cure, the barns were not encouraged. This was, according the the BAT official, because they would cost the farmer more. In BAT’s case, the company often sold its farmers the seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and equipment the farmer needed. It was, therefore, part of their business model to pass expenses on to individual farmers. This meant the company knew quite well what a farmer could and could not afford-the company very likely would have had to forced to subsidize the solar barn. Forcing such a subsidy appears not to have occurred to any anti-tobacco or environmental activists at the time, but could certainly be attempted now.

Even more striking, however, is that a technological solution was not necessary to reduce curing fuel. A logistical solution would have been to centralize the process; everything farmers produced could have been shipped to one location and cured collectively, again eliminating wood use and perhaps reducing other fuel use as well. Centralization would not require more transport fuel because so often the cigarettes are produced far from where the tobacco is grown anyway. Solar barns at a hub site could offset some of the fuel used for transportation. However, the tobacco industry generally displaces curing expenses onto the farmers themselves, rather than incurring the expense at the corporate level.

The importance of offloading expenses on to the farmer cannot be overestimated. It had the effect of forcing farmers to find ways to get the most tobacco out of the limited amount of land they had access to and that often meant cutting down more forest.

In Brazil, however, there was another option- fumo luoco, or Crazy Tobacco, code named Y-1. Designed by DNA Plant Technology of Oakland California for an initial $100,000, fumo luoco, was a biologically engineered tobacco strand – something in which the major tobacco companies had repeatedly denied having any interest. Fumo luoco grows six to seven feet tall, has stalks as thick as a man’s arm, and broad leaves two-feet wide. Most importantly, it has twice the typical nicotine level. The idea was to create tobacco with added addictive power, but without adding extra tar; thus, the hope was it tasted better than other technological attempts to boost the nicotine content while cutting tar levels during the process of introducing additives and re-engineering other aspects of the cigarette. Brown & Williamson was so taken with the technology that they tested the best farming practices for Y-1 by smuggling the seeds into Brazil and other countries in Latin America. The plant produced so much tobacco and with such high nicotine content and with less acreage that farmers quickly realized they could enhance their yields by using it exclusively, or by adding it to their lower quality tobaccos so that it would enhance the punch of their weaker strands. Every indication points to farmers continuing to do so even after the plant became outlawed.

The question, though, is what the environmental impacts of the new strain might be? If forced to imagine a possible upside to Y-1, one might contemplate a confidential set of 1996 talking points Philip Morris produced outlining the regulatory hurdles to growing “transgenic” tobacco. The company denied any intention to produce bioengineered tobaccos. However, it also pointed out that were they to do so, it would likely to be because they found a way to produce a strain that grows sufficiently with much fewer fertilizer or pesticide inputs. Might this be an advantage of Y-1?

In light of the criminal abuse of technology, the blatant disregard for state or ecological borders and a history of suppressing their own most promising technology, it would take a whale-size imagination to believe Big Tobacco would ever do anything strictly because it might have some environmental benefit. Such corporate responsibility would take the kind of moral imagination all too rare in these most neoliberal days. One is tempted to think a Rachel Carson of tobacco would be required before any such alteration in the zeitgeist were possible. Carson herself, however, was too timid when it came to tobacco and seems to have ignored the problem.

It may be more suitable to ponder the words of a historian of shipping technology, himself a legendary pipe smoker, and author of a grotesque paean to smoking called “Herba Santa.” The reader shall be spared any lines from Herman Melville’s lousiest work, and in exchange offered these lines of his: “In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.” Now, however, the time has come for tobacco control advocates and environmentalists to realize they are one and the same in the struggle against a very lucrative enemy.

STANDARD SCHAEFER is a writer in San Francisco. He can be reached