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In 1994 CEOs of the seven largest tobacco companies testified under oath before Congress that they believed that the evidence that cigarette smoking caused diseases such as cancer and heart disease was inconclusive, that cigarettes were not addictive, and that they did not market to children. Less than one month after this testimony, a box containing several thousand pages of confidential documents from the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation was delivered to the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF). The box contained reports of internal industry studies that had been copied by a paralegal who had worked for a law firm representing Brown & Williamson.

Despite Brown & Williamson's demand through the courts for the return of these documents, the UCSF Library posted them on the Internet, and public health scientists disclosed the contents of the documents in a series of published articles and a book titled The Cigarette Papers (1996). These secret documents revealed that for at least forty years, leading executives in the tobacco industry considered tobacco addictive and harmful and had conducted and directed marketing efforts to beginning smokers. These previously secret documents provided the first glimpse into the inner workings of the tobacco industry. Disclosure even attracted the attention of President William J. Clinton, who commented in 1996 that it affected his decision to ask the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate nicotine as an addictive drug and to define cigarettes and smokeless tobacco as drug delivery devices.

Courtroom Evidence

Industry documents started appearing as evidence in lawsuits filed against tobacco manufacturers beginning in the early 1990s. However, up until that time, industry lawyers had blocked disclosure of most of their documents under the claim of attorney–client privilege, a legal principle that holds that communication between a client and his or her lawyer should be confidential.

This situation changed when Judge H. Lee Sarokin of the U.S. District Court, New Jersey, ordered the release of a small set of internal documents as part of a case filed on behalf a lung cancer victim. The documents pertained to the tobacco industry's Council for Tobacco Research (CTR) program, which cigarette makers had represented as an independent research program set up to support scientific research into questions related to smoking and health. However, the documents told a different story, indicating that the CTR was established as an industry shield primarily for public relations purposes. Budget documents reveal that money earmarked for independent research instead was directed to researchers who were hand picked by industry lawyers to provide findings that would be helpful to defend the industry in court. In his ruling the judge commented that facts disclosed in the newly released documents showed that "the tobacco industry may be the king of concealment and disinformation." The release of these documents provided a roadmap for future discovery of industry documents.

At about the same time, industry whistleblowers began to come forward to tell their stories. Among them was Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, the vice president for research and development at Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation from December 1988 to March 1993, who came forward to tell how the cigarette industry had lied to the American public.

The result of these disclosures was a first-ever jury verdict against a cigarette company in 1996, when Brown & Williamson was required to pay $750,000 to the family of a lung cancer victim. Dozens of additional lawsuits were subsequently filed, including several suits by states seeking recovery of public monies spent on treating tobacco-caused illnesses. In 1996 the Liggett Group, the smallest of the major U.S. tobacco companies, settled lawsuits with the states of West Virginia, Florida, Mississippi, Massachusetts, and Louisiana. Through this settlement, the Liggett Group agreed to make cash payments to the states, accept limitations on cigarette advertising, and to drop its opposition to the FDA regulation of tobacco.

The Liggett settlement encouraged other states to enter into lawsuits, which eventually resulted in the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) between the nation's major tobacco companies and the attorneys general of forty-six states. A key provision of the MSA includes the requirement for the tobacco industry to post approximately 33 million pages of tobacco documents on the Internet.

A separate but related lawsuit filed by New York State resulted in a 1998 agreement to release all files of two industry organizations: the Tobacco Institute and the Council for Tobacco Research. Another 8 million pages of documents from the British-American Tobacco Company (BATCo) are held at the Guildford Document Depository in Guildford, England. These documents provide insights into international marketing by BATCo (<>).

Documents Online

Industry-sponsored websites present a variety of research challenges. Each company is permitted to sponsor its own website, which means that subject-related searches (such as cancer or nicotine) have to be done separately for each company. The company websites also differ in how documents are organized, further complicating efforts to search for information.

Tobacco Document Websites

S everal websites feature accessible collections of tobacco documents. Three notable sites follow.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention <>

Tobacco Documents Online <>

Legacy Tobacco Documents Library at UCSF <>

Fortunately, several groups created virtual libraries of the various document collections, easing research (see sidebar). Public health officials are using the documents to understand how cigarettes are designed and marketed. For example, the documents reveal how companies designed their cigarettes and marketing campaigns to deceive smokers into thinking that "light" cigarette brands were safer than others. As a result of this disclosure, on 30 September 2003 the European Union banned the use of advertising labels such as "light" and "mild." In Australia, an inquiry issued a report in May 2002 concerning possible policies to eliminate such terms. That inquiry is also considering removing tar and nicotine yields from packs, the basis on which claims of reduced delivery are based.

The documents also reveal how the tobacco industry used its vast resources to manipulate the political process to avoid regulation and oversight. For example, the Tobacco Institute hired scientific consultants to defeat ETS regulations and routinely gave out large contributions and donations to politicians and organizations that would oppose tobacco control measures. In 1984, Philip Morris threatened to withdraw business from Dow Chemical because they were involved in marketing nicotine gum as a stop-smoking aid. Ongoing national efforts to regulate lobbying and donations to political campaigns were stimulated in part by revelations about tobacco industry influence over government officials.

The tobacco documents provide a simple lesson—the industry will always put its profits ahead of public health. The tobacco documents are a great resource for students to learn first hand what the tobacco industry is all about so that the mistakes of the past do not have to be repeated in the future.

See Also Antismoking Movement From 1950; "Light" and Filtered Cigarettes; Litigation; Lobbying; Public Relations.





Cummings, K. M., C. P. Morley, and A. Hyland. "Failed Promises of the Cigarette Industry and Its Effect on Consumer Misperceptions about the Health Risks of Smoking." Tobacco Control 11 (1 March 2002): 110–117.

Glantz, S. A., et al. "Looking through a Keyhole at the Tobacco Industry: The Brown & Williamson Documents." Journal of the American Medical Association 274, no. 3 (19 July 1995): 219–224.

Glantz, Stanton A., et al. The Cigarette Papers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Kessler, David A. A Question of Intent: A Great American Battle with a Deadly Industry. New York: Public Affairs, 2001.

Latshaw, R. D. "Suspension of Dow Purchases." 7 May 1984. Philip Morris. Bates: 2023799799–2023799800.

Malone, Ruth E., and Edith D. Balbach. "Tobacco Industry Documents: Treasure Trove or Quagmire?" Tobacco Control 9 (2000): 334–338.

Morley, C., et al. "Tobacco Institute Lobbying at the State and Local Levels of Government in the 1990's." Tobacco Control11 (suppl 1) (2002): i102–i109.

tar a residue of tobacco smoke, composed of many chemical substances that are collectively known by this term.