McGill EMF Conference

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The McGill EMF Conference was a conference organized by Philip Morris on environmental tobacco smoke (ETS, or passive smoking) held November 3–4, 1989 at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Almost all participants (speakers, panelists and listeners) selected and funded by the company.

The proceedings of the conference were published by the Institute for International Health and Development[1] (IIHD), an international health and development organization set up by the tobacco industry. The IIHD is not related to a later organization operating under the same name. The IIHD had offices in Geneva and the USA, and was a creation of labor lawyer David A. Morse (noble laureate and ex-director of the International Labour Organization to prmote the views of the tobacco industry to the United Nations, the World Health Organisation), and politicians and health-care administrators in Europe.

The IIHD's headquarters were at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C. David Morse had developed strong Vatican connections through his ILO directorship, and, in partnership with another tobacco consultant Paul G. Dietrich, he provided administrative services for the Vatican's US arm of the Sovereign Knights of Malta.[2] Dietrich was on the Catholic University board, and his wife Laura Jordan Dietrich had been Ronald Reagan's human rights ambassador to the UN.

The concept[edit]

Initially the idea behind the McGill conference was for Washington's main tobacco law firm Covington & Burling to organize a Canadian training program for tobacco-industry spokesmen in North America at the medical school at McGill University. Later it was expanded to include many consultants.

The tobacco industry had a long-term relationship (through grants and contract work) with Don Ecobichon, a professor of pharmacology at the university, and it had recently established a new relationship with Professor Lucien Abenhaim from McGill's Faculty of Medicine. Abenhaim was also a director of the French health research unit, INSERM, and on 9 February 1988 he was approached in Paris by a Philip Morris executive.[3] Abenhaim was not cooperative and actually co-wrote a literature review[4] which concluded:

  • There is strong evidence of an association between residential exposure to environmental tobacco smoke and both respiratory illness and reduction of lung function, and also between maternal smoking and reduced birth weight
  • The weight of evidence is compatible with an association between active maternal smoking during pregnancy and increased infant mortality, and also between residential exposure to environmental tobacco smoke (primarily spousal smoking) and the risk of lung cancer

Abenhaim was not invited to the McGill conference and had no role in its organisation.

The design of the conference came from Andrew Whist, vice-president of Philip Morris's corporate affairs, who was responsible for science issues related to smoking and health outside the US. He operated under the ultimate control of PM's CEO R. William (Bill) Murray. Whist's specialty was in generating and publicizing the arguments used by the industry to counter anti-smoking activist, medical specialists, and political reformers who were promoting smoking control. He was recognized as the leader in this field by tobacco companies and national organisations.[citation needed]

The earliest lists of participants and speakers (who would be paid to attend the conference) were their main international consultants. But later the list was widened to include more domestic participants chosen from the very long list of US consultants (run by Steve Parrish at PM USA), and later still they included as participants a few consultants and science-staff from the other tobacco companies.

The organization of the McGill conference was under the control and funding of Philip Morris until the last stages when they decided to admit some speakers and participants from British American Tobacco and RJ Reynolds Tobacco.

The industry was focused at this time on the problems created by recent passive smoking research which had demonstrated an unexpected level of adverse health consequences to children, spouses, workplace associates, and non-smokers. They knew that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was threatening to regulate workplace smoking as a carcinogenic pollutant in the ambient air—and therefore that their claims that the 'smoker made the choice to smoke or not'... that smoking was a personal choice... would no longer excuse the damage to health.

This conference signaled a change in propaganda and political direction.


The conference was intended to serve a number of purposes:

  • The conference proceedings were published under the banner of the IIHD at Geneva
  • The proceedings booklet did not, as is the case for scientific conferences, hold the full range of expert opinion on disputable questions. The proceedings were also translated into other languages, printed and circulated under the IIHD banner as "the most comprehensive series of research findings into the claimed problems of second-hand smoke ever published." Because there was nothing similar published at this time, the booklets became an unofficial textbook for university-level courses looking at second-hand smoking and health. It also became used in courses dealing with air-quality and building engineering (air conditioning) around the world.
  • The workshops in Montreal updated the industry's global consultants, staff and advisers and gave them an opportunity to devise and learn the most effective ways of handling different types of political, economic, social, and other problems related to passive smoking. The company employed highly professional "smoking-deniers" on staff who could teach participants how to deal with objections and address questions.
  • The conference allowed the consultants to coordinate the claims and statements they were making so that all spoke with a reasonable, single voice
  • The meeting also provided considerable feedback to Philip Morris about the potential problems they were facing around the world. The problems arising from ETS and workplace ventilation often differed from nation to nation.
  • The press releases issued by the conference organizers (Covington & Burling) stressed the "lack of scientific consensus" line that the industry used after the release of every new piece of scientific research showing adverse health consequences from tobacco
  • Conservative media concluded from the industry's arguments and government inaction that passive smoking was not really a serious issue. This conference aimed to amplify this message.

The McGill conference made no attempt to provide scientific balance. The tobacco industry's opponents were not invited to attend the conference, but at McGill, every speaker and every participant was either a trusted scientific consultant working for the tobacco industry, a tobacco industry lawyer-lobbyist, or a staff member of a tobacco company.[citation needed]

Many of these institutions were included in the list of co-sponsors of the conference[5] despite them playing no role whatsoever.

Two of those on the list (IIHD and HBI) were tobacco industry-funded operations. A couple of others were the industry's coalition partners in air-quality politics, and the rest were universities and research institutions whose only role was to lend their names to this conference.

Philip Morris's planning[edit]

Andrew Whist, the top executive in the corporate affairs division of the company who was directly in charge of scientific corruption operations, wrote a memo to his boss R. W. (Bill) Murray on August 8, 1989 documenting the rationale behind the conference with amazing frankness:[6]

"What we have been planning over the past several days is a major international symposium which would be both closed and private until the release, shortly after the symposium, of a monograph summarizing the proceedings.
"Our goal, of course, is to produce an impressive document that would have the potential of neutralizing two reports that are scheduled to be released near the end of this year -- an ETS [second-hand smoke] risk assessment that is being prepared by EPA and a detailed assessment of ETS health effects under preparation, at Rockefeller University, supervised by Professor Spitzer (an avowed anti-smoker). The EPA and Spitzer reports would cause substantial damage unless they are somehow countered.
"As you know, we are planning to hold the symposium in late October or very early November of this year -- a schedule that is dictated, of course, by the tentative release dates of the EPA and Spitzer reports. We expect that very tight schedule to present some problems, but we are hopeful that we will be able to overcome them."

Whist estimated the costs at this early stage to be a half-million dollars.

"Chuck Lister of Covington & Burling, London, is ready to supervise the efforts of the scientists who agree to participate from our EEC/EEMA [European] consulting groups [and] John Rupp will take responsibility for participating consultants from United States, Canada and Asia. [W]e need to make sure that the publisher we select is prepared to guarantee an almost unprecedented quick turnaround on the symposium monograph."

The tentative agenda Whist had drawn up featured well-known tobacco scientific "friends".[7]

At the combined industry ETS Coordination Meeting held by the Tobacco Institute the following month, details were revealed showing that planning was already well advanced. The IIHD with David Morse and Paul Dietrich had taken on the task of publishing and distributing the proceedings, and their organization (which was to be accepted at the United Nations WHO forums as a "non-government organization' (NGO) gave it the appearance of internationalism, credibility and independence.

The Tobacco Institute and their lawyer-lobbyists, Covington & Burling, were also rapidly recruiting new academics in America (aided by Myron Weinberg, whose company identified the most likely targets for an approach) and some of these would attend the McGill conference. One of the new recruits, Dr. Joseph Wu, was later credited with being one of the principle organizers.[8]

Shortly after (September 28, 1989), the draft of the invitation to speakers revealed that the conference was now jointly sponsored by "McGill University and the Institute for International Health and Development of Geneva, Switzerland."[9]

An updated agenda and registration form which was circulated on the same day as the invitation[10] shows that most of the speakers had already been confirmed.[11] A few days later a list of confirmed participants was also circulated.[12] John Rupp, the C&B tobacco-lawyer-lobbyist, was in charge.[13]

Covington & Burling put out a press release revealing that the consensus was that environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) had been unfairly targeted by the anti-smoking lobby, and that the claims of the independent research scientists and the concerned staff at the EPA should not be used "in the future for policy decisions."[14]

The press release goes on to say: "In fact, one McGill-speaker after another took issue with the claim that ETS has been shown to present a health hazard to nonsmokers."

Copies of the key sections of the proceedings with the conclusions was typeset and circulated by fax around Asia before the end of January.[15]

McGill staff involvement[edit]

The key tobacco industry contact at McGill was professor Don J. Ecobichon, Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics at the medical school, although Joseph M. Wu of New York Medical College also earned a credit. Ecobicon arranged for the medical school sponsor the conference: he had been a scientific consultant, grantee and spokesman for the tobacco industry for a couple of decades before this conference. Both of these principals had worked with lawyer-lobbyist John Rupp (Covington & Burling) before.

According to a Tobacco Institute document:[16]

" The conference will be closed; attendance is by invitation only. There will be no pre-conference publicity, no publicity during the conference, and no post-conference press conference.
"Ecobichon has pointed out that if other members of the medical school faculty at McGill want to come, he can't very well keep them out. In fact, it probably won't hurt to have some representation there not invited by the tobacco industry."

The Tobacco Institute reported that the proceedings and some edited discussions were to be published in book form and made available to the industry as a whole:

"The publication can then be used in a variety of ways, but there has been no extensive planning on the uses which can be made of the monograph. Among other things, the risk assessment portion may be useful with EPA and the various things going on in California." This referred to Californian moves to ban smoking in the workplace.

The fact that the IIHD was funded and controlled by Philip Morris was confidential, but the Tobacco Institute's memo reported its involvement as if it were an independent international health organization:

"The Institute for International Health and Development based in Geneva has expressed interest in publishing the monograph as part of a series of ten monographs planned by that group. The Institute has already published one on AIDS; this would be the second. We will have to deal with the criticism that this conference was by invitation only. Rupp's view is that the American Lung Association, Surgeon General, etc., are going to scream when the book comes out, but we'll still have the book."

The IIHD's monograph on AIDS criticized the World Health Organization for running a global anti-smoking campaign when (it claimed) all their resources should be directed at more serious health matters, like AIDS and malaria.

Post script[edit]

Many years later (in early 1993) the McGill booklet created a rift between Paul Dietrich at the IIHD (David Morse died in 1990) and the tobacco industry—specifically with Dr. Sharon Boyse who ran the scientific information program at British American Tobacco. At this time Dietrich was acting as a touring lecturer for BAT and provided a range of other services. They fell out over the price of translating and printing the McGill booklet in Spanish.[17][18] He was replaced overnight by Professor Robert Tollison, an economist from George Mason University.


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ [2]
  3. ^ [3]
  4. ^ Spitzer, WO; Lawrence, V; Dales, R; Hill, G; Archer, MC; Clark, P; Abenhaim, L; Hardy, J; Sampalis, J; Pinfold, SP (1990). "Links between passive smoking and disease: a best-evidence synthesis. A report of the Working Group on Passive Smoking". Clin Invest Med. 13: 17–42; discussion 43–6. PMID 2138069. 
  5. ^ See page 2
  6. ^ [4]
  7. ^ [5]
  8. ^ [6]
  9. ^ [7][permanent dead link]
  10. ^ [8]
  11. ^ [9]
  12. ^ [10]
  13. ^ [11]
  14. ^ [12]
  15. ^ [13] (See fax date)
  16. ^ [14]
  17. ^ [15]
  18. ^ [16]