Tobacco industry playbook

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Gift offered by tobacco industry lobbyists to Dutch politician Kartika Liotard in September 2013

The tobacco industry playbook, tobacco strategy or simply disinformation playbook[1] describes a strategy devised by the tobacco industry in the 1950s to protect revenues in the face of mounting evidence of links between tobacco smoke and serious illnesses, primarily cancer.[2] Much of the playbook is known from industry documents made public by whistleblowers or as a result of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. These documents are now curated by the UCSF Truth Tobacco Industry Documents project and are a primary source for much commentary on both the tobacco playbook and its similarities to the tactics used by other industries, notably the fossil fuel industry. It is possible that the playbook may even have originated with the oil industry.[3][4]

A 1969 R. J. Reynolds internal memorandum noted, "Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the mind of the general public."[5]

In Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway documented the way that tobacco companies had campaigned over several decades to cast doubt on the scientific evidence of harm caused by their products, and noted the same techniques being used by other industries whose harmful products were targets of regulatory and environmental efforts.[6] This is often linked to climate change denialism promoted by the fossil fuel industry:[7][8] the same tactics were employed by fossil fuel groups such as the American Petroleum Institute to cast doubt on climate science from the 1990s[9] and some of the same PR firms and individuals engaged to claim that tobacco smoking was safe, were later recruited to attack climate science.[10]


The strategy was initiated at a crisis meeting between US tobacco executives and John Hill, of public relations company Hill & Knowlton, at the New York Plaza Hotel, in 1953, following the Reader's Digest's précis of an article from the Christian Herald titled "Cancer by the Carton", highlighting the emergent findings of epidemiologists including Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill.[11] It led to the 1954 publication of A Frank Statement, an advertisement designed to cast doubt on the science showing serious health effects from smoking.

Tactics included:[12]

Documents such as Bad Science: A Resource Book were used to promulgate talking points intended to cast doubt on scientific independence and political interference.[13][10]


The playbook has been adopted by the fossil fuel industry, in its efforts to stave off global action on climate change,[1][10] and by those seeking to undermine the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) more generally.[14] The manufacture and promotion of uncertainty, especially, has been identified as inspired directly by the tobacco industry.[6][15]

Recognising that it had little or no credibility with the public, and concerned about mounting pressure to act on environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), the tobacco industry actively recruited fellow enemies of the EPA, setting up the "Advancement of Sound Science Coalition" (TASSC), a fake grassroots group.[14] Its first director was Steve Milloy, previously of APCO, the consultancy firm employed by Philip Morris to set up TASSC. Milloy subsequently set up, a website which equates environmentalists with Nazis and now promotes climate change denial.[16] Many of the consultants who worked for the tobacco industry, have also worked for fossil fuel companies against action on climate change. TASSC hired Frederick Seitz and Fred Singer, both now prominent in climate change denial.[16] Greg Zimmerman found a 2015 presentation titled "Survival Is Victory: Lessons From the Tobacco Wars" by Richard Reavey of Cloud Peak Energy (and formerly of Philip Morris) in which Reavey explicitly acknowledged the parallels and urged fellow coal executives to accept the facts of climate change and work with regulators on solutions that would preserve the industry.[17][18] Both Fred Singer and Frederick Seitz are prominent figures in climate change denial who previously worked for the tobacco industry.[19][16]

Environmentalist George Monbiot identifies many groups that were funded by tobacco firms and subsequently by Exxon and other fossil fuel companies, and now actively take part in climate change denial, including the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, The Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, the Frontiers of Freedom Institute, the Reason Foundation, the Independent Institute, and George Mason University's Law and Economics Centre.[16]

Opponents of vaping also identify elements of the tobacco playbook in the e-cigarette industry's response to health concerns.[20][21] Tobacco companies took stakes in soft drinks companies and used the same tactics around colours and flavours that they had used to target young potential smokers.[22][23] The soft drinks industry's attempts to avoid sugary beverage taxes or other government action to reduce obesity draws upon elements of the tobacco playbook,[24] including use of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs as a PR strategy.[25] Research contracts issued as part of CSR programmes allow soft drinks manufacturers to bury inconvenient results.[26]

A 2019 article in the Emory Law Journal made parallels to attempts by the National Football League to downplay the issue of CTE in football,[27] with the New York Times noting a number of tobacco figures involved in the NFL's defence.[28]

The World Health Organization has subsequently published a tobacco control playbook.[29]

The public relations strategies of Big Tech companies have often been compared with the tobacco industry playbook.[30][31][further explanation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "The Disinformation Playbook". Union of Concerned Scientists. Archived from the original on 2020-04-21. Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  2. ^ Rowell, Andrew; Evans-Reeves, Karen. "It was Big Tobacco, not Trump, that wrote the post-truth rule book". The Conversation. Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  3. ^ Hulac, Benjamin (July 20, 2016). "Tobacco and Oil Industries Used Same Researchers to Sway Public". ClimateWire – via Scientific American. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  4. ^ "New Documents Reveal Denial Playbook Originated with Big Oil, Not Big Tobacco" (Press release). Center for International Environmental Law. June 20, 2016. Archived from the original on June 25, 2020. Retrieved April 9, 2020.
  5. ^ The cigarette papers. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1996. pp. 190. ISBN 978-0-520-92099-6. OCLC 42855812.
  6. ^ a b Oreskes, Naomi. (2010). Merchants of Doubt (1st U.S. ed.). New York: Bloomsbury Press. ISBN 978-1-59691-610-4. OCLC 461631066.
  7. ^ Supran, Geoffrey; Oreskes, Naomi (2017-08-01). "Assessing ExxonMobil's climate change communications (1977–2014)". Environmental Research Letters. 12 (8): 084019. Bibcode:2017ERL....12h4019S. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/aa815f. ISSN 1748-9326.
  8. ^ Nuccitelli, Dana (2017-08-23). "Harvard scientists took Exxon's challenge; found it using the tobacco playbook". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Archived from the original on 2020-09-25. Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  9. ^ Pooley, Eric (14 February 2017). "Climate Change Denial Is the Original Fake News". Time Magazine. Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  10. ^ a b c Readfearn, Graham (2015-03-05). "Doubt over climate science is a product with an industry behind it". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Archived from the original on 2019-05-29. Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  11. ^ Stobbe, Mike (5 January 2014). "Historic smoking report marks 50th anniversary". USA Today. Archived from the original on 2017-09-02. Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  12. ^ Brownell, Kelly D; Warner, Kenneth E (March 2009). "The Perils of Ignoring History: Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died. How Similar Is Big Food?". The Milbank Quarterly. 87 (1): 259–294. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0009.2009.00555.x. ISSN 0887-378X. PMC 2879177. PMID 19298423.
  13. ^ "Bad Science: a Resource Book". Tobacco Industry Documents Library. Archived from the original on 2020-03-26. Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  14. ^ a b Johns, David Merritt; Levy, Karen. "How Trump's war on science is borrowing from the tobacco industry playbook". Washington Post. Archived from the original on 2020-03-12. Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  15. ^ Corner, Adam (2014-01-31). "The communication of uncertainty is hindering climate change action". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Archived from the original on 2020-05-24. Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  16. ^ a b c d Monbiot, George (2006-09-19). "Climate change and Big Tobacco". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Archived from the original on 2007-03-24. Retrieved 2020-04-23.
  17. ^ Schwartz, John (2016-08-16). "Feeling Cornered, Coal Industry Borrows From Tobacco Playbook, Activists Say". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  18. ^ Hulac, Benjamin (August 25, 2016). "Coal Executive Says His Industry Must Confront Climate Change". ClimateWire. Archived from the original on October 7, 2019. Retrieved April 9, 2020. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  19. ^ "Climate denier Fred Singer complains about Merchants of Doubt". Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. Archived from the original on 2019-10-29. Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  20. ^ "How the Vaping Industry Is Using a Defensive Tactic Pioneered Decades Ago by Big Tobacco". Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  21. ^ Bloomberg, Michael R.; Myers, Matt (2019-09-10). "Ban Flavored E-Cigarettes to Protect Our Children". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  22. ^ Desk, Medibulletin (2019-03-15). "Big tobacco bringing same market strategy into sugary drinks". Archived from the original on 2021-10-27. Retrieved 2020-04-23.
  23. ^ "Soft Drink Companies Copy Tobacco Playbook to Lure Young Users". 14 March 2019. Archived from the original on 2020-03-25. Retrieved 2020-04-23. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  24. ^ Nestle, Marion (2015-08-11). "Coca-Cola says its drinks don't cause obesity. Science says otherwise". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Archived from the original on 2020-02-22. Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  25. ^ Dorfman, Lori; Cheyne, Andrew; Friedman, Lissy C.; Wadud, Asiya; Gottlieb, Mark (2012-06-19). "Soda and Tobacco Industry Corporate Social Responsibility Campaigns: How Do They Compare?". PLOS Medicine. 9 (6): e1001241. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001241. ISSN 1549-1676. PMC 3378589. PMID 22723745.
  26. ^ "Contracts give Coca-Cola power to 'quash' health research, study suggests". 2019-05-08. Archived from the original on 2020-08-05. Retrieved 2020-04-23. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  27. ^ Paolini, Mikayla (2019). "NFL Takes a Page from the Big Tobacco Playbook: Assumption of Risk in the CTE Crisis". Emory Law Journal. 68 (3): 607–642.
  28. ^ Schwarz, Alan; Bogdanich, Walt; Williams, Jacqueline (2016-03-24). "N.F.L.'s Flawed Concussion Research and Ties to Tobacco Industry". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  29. ^ "Tobacco Control Playbook". World Health Organization. 2020-04-09. Archived from the original on 2020-02-05. Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  30. ^ Macpherson, Lisa (2021-10-29). "Is This Really Big Tech's 'Big Tobacco' Moment? Only Congress Can Make It So". Retrieved 2022-01-12.
  31. ^ Abdalla, Mohamed; Abdalla, Moustafa (2021). "The Grey Hoodie Project: Big Tobacco, Big Tech, and the Threat on Academic Integrity". Proceedings of the 2021 AAAI/ACM Conference on AI, Ethics, and Society. pp. 287–297. arXiv:2009.13676. doi:10.1145/3461702.3462563. ISBN 9781450384735. S2CID 221995749.

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