Tobacco companies knew for decades — thanks to their own scientific research — that smoking was dangerous and addictive. But eager to avoid government regulations and public scrutiny, companies orchestrated a national campaign to discredit the science, according to the new documentary Merchants of Doubt from filmmaker Robert Kenner.
Released Friday, the film links the pro-tobacco strategy to recent efforts by climate change skeptics to discredit scientific research and sway public opinion.
Merchants of Doubt raises important questions about what people should and should not believe in the information age, said American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown.
“When it comes to the dangers of tobacco, the scientific facts are absolutely indisputable: People die and people suffer terribly because they use tobacco — and even when they don’t use it but are exposed to it,” Brown said. “It’s been proven over and over again. And that is why science-based organizations like the American Heart Association encourage everyone to understand this simple fact: If you avoid tobacco, you will live longer and be healthier.”
Merchants of Doubt is based on the book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, who discovered how companies have shaped the public understanding of health and environmental issues for the past 50 years. Kenner, the film’s director, also directed the documentary Food, Inc., which explored how practices of the corporate-controlled food industry affects public health.
“This is the story of a small group of people who have been remarkably effective at getting the public to disregard the science behind many issues,” Kenner said in a statement. “They did it first with tobacco, then with chemicals and food, and now they’re doing it with climate change. It’s a compelling story to watch unfold because these guys are so good — so horrifyingly good — at what they do.”
That group includes Marc Morano, founder of the website Climate Depot, who the media-watchdog organization Media Matters for America named “Climate Change Misinformer of the Year” in 2012.
“Communication is about sales,” Morano said in the film. “Keep it simple; people will fill in the blank with their own — I hate to say biases — but with their own perspective in many cases.”
Also featured is the late Frederick Seitz, a prominent physicist who pioneered quantum theories and became a passionate denier of tobacco’s health impacts when he worked for the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Seitz later led skeptics of climate change in the 1990s, according to the film.
The film explores the “playbook” created by tobacco spokespeople that involved denying or minimizing the health concerns, attacking researchers personally and raising questions about how regulations may limit the freedom of Americans.
Corporations even established “front groups,” nonprofit groups to advance their perspectives. For example, tobacco company Philip Morris created the now-defunct Advancement of Sound Science Coalition in 1993 in response to an Environmental Protection Agency report identifying secondhand smoke as a cancer-causing agent. The lobby group stated its objectives were to discredit the report, fight anti-smoking legislation and pass legislation that favored the tobacco industry, according to SourceWatch, a website of the watchdog Center for Media and Democracy.
Spokespeople from these front groups often are called to testify and appear on news programs to debate scientists, the documentary points out.
“You go up against a scientist. Most of them are very hard to understand and very bor-ing,” Morano said in the film.
Uncertainty is intrinsic to science, Oreskes said in a statement. “But just because we don’t know everything, that doesn’t mean we know nothing,” she said.
Kenner said that in the battle of science versus showmen, showmen tend to win. “All of these guys know it’s not about the science,” he said. “It’s about perception.”