Distraction and Subversion Research at the Council for Tobacco Research
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. It is also the means of establishing a controversy. [...] Unfortunately, we
cannot take a position directly opposing the anti-cigarette forces and say that cigarettes are a
contributor to good health. No information that we have supports such a claim.
Since the 1950s, creating doubt has been at the center of the tobacco industry’s
Allan Brandt. The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the
Product That Defined America. New York: Basic Books, 2007: Ch. 6 and Robert Proctor. Golden
Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition. University of California
Press, 2011, Ch. 17.
knew that they couldn’t show that smoking was harmless and instead chose to fund scientists that would claim,
in their name, that many things might cause cancer; that the strong correlation between smoking and lung cancer
didn’t imply causation; and that more research was needed. The industry’s strategy hinged on amplifying the
voices of this tiny minority until it seemed as if half of the scientific establishment was unconvinced by the
case against smoking.
This campaign to cast doubt on the science behind smoking’s health harms had its beginnings in 1953 when the
major U.S. tobacco companies came together to hire the PR firm Hill & Knowlton to defend them. Hill & Knowlton’s
strategy was to argue that the jury was still out on whether or not smoking was harmful while claiming that the
industry did everything it could to support scientific research on the
On the Frank Statement and the CTR, see Proctor, Golden Holocaust, Ch. 18.
To support this narrative, the
tobacco industry in 1954 bought space in 448 newspapers across the United States to print its “Frank Statement
to Cigarette Smokers.” One of its key sections read:
Distinguished authorities point out:
1. That medical research of recent years indicates many possible causes of cancer.
2. That there is no agreement among the authorities regarding what the cause is.
3. That there is no proof that cigarette smoking is one of the causes.
4.That statistics purporting to link cigarette smoking with the disease could apply with equal force to
any of the many other aspects of modern life. Indeed the validity of the statistics themselves is
questioned by numerous scientists.
The Frank Statement was a brilliant piece of rhetoric. Its goal, first and foremost, was to keep Americans
smoking. And it did so by claiming that modern life was dangerous in many ways and that smoking’s contribution
to disease or mortality remained entirely unclear. Attacks on tobacco, the Frank Statement continued, were
nothing new. For the 300 years during which tobacco had been used, “critics have held it responsible for
practically every disease of the human body. One by one these charges have been abandoned for lack of evidence.”
The link between smoking and lung cancer, it implied, would be no different. At the same time, the Frank
Statement presented the tobacco industry as a responsible corporate citizen who, in response to all the
supposed confusion, had set up the “Tobacco Industry Research Committee” (TIRC) to fund research into
smoking and health.
The problem for the industry was that there existed no real controversy around smoking and lung cancer.
Certainly, some things still needed to be figured out. But large scale epidemiological studies with hundreds of
thousands of test subjects in both the United States and the United Kingdom had shown that smokers were at
elevated risk not just for lung cancer but for most other cancers and cardiovascular disease as well. At the
same time researchers could produce cancers by painting the skin and ears of mice and rabbits with tobacco tar,
demonstrating that tar could indeed cause tobacco. The available pieces of evidence all fit together and indicted
smoking as the main cause of lung cancer as well as a contributor to other kinds of cancers and heart disease.
If there was to be a scientific controversy, the industry had to create one.
The TIRC, which was renamed to Council for Tobacco Research (CTR) in 1964, stood at the center of this process.
The CTR, according to the Frank Statement, came to be because the tobacco companies pledged “aid and assistance
to the research effort into all phases of tobacco use and health.”
“A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers.” January 4 1954.
American Tobacco, Brown & Williamson, Lorillard, Philip Morris, and RJ Reynolds would jointly fund this new
organization, which, under the guidance of a “scientist of unimpeachable integrity and national repute,” would
disburse millions of dollars in research funding to scientists across the United States.
The reality was rather different. The CTR, in the summary of Robert Seligman, Philip Morris’ Vice President of
Research and Development, was both a “shield” and a “front” for the
Robert Seligman. “Meeting in New York - November 15, 1978.” November 17 1978.
It was a shield because the
hundreds of millions of dollars spent on tobacco related research enabled the industry to say not only that
the case still wasn’t settled but also that they were still committed to funding more research. (In reality,
the CTR funded basic research that had little to do with smoking and health.) But the CTR was also a “front”
that enabled the industry to give money to its strongest allies in science by giving them funding for so-called
“Special Projects” that were selected directly by the CTR’s lawyers and did not have to pass review by the CTR’s
Scientific Advisory Board (SAB). The recipients of Special Project grants were then expected to produce research
that directly helped the industry, for example by challenging the link between smoking and lung cancer. But the
industry would also call on them to speak out in public. As Seligman noted, through the Special Projects, the
CTR “supplied spokemen for the industry at Congressional hearings. The monies spent at CTR provides a base for
introduction of witnesses.”
In this essay, we will see how the CTR’s functions as a “shield” and a “front” were both integral to the industry’s
campaign to create doubt about smoking’s health harms. We will first explore how the CTR functioned as a “shield”
by drawing on the more than 12,000 grant applications that the CTR received for its grant
You can explore this as well as the Special Projects dataset here.
program required balancing two different imperatives. On the one hand, in order to be of PR value, the CTR had to
appear like any other grant agency, set up by the concerned tobacco industry to support a wide range of projects.
This would allow tobacco industry representatives to claim that the relationship between smoking and health was
still unclear and that the industry was committed to fund more research. On the other hand, the projects funded
by the CTR had to be “safe,” this is: they couldn’t add further evidence that showed smoking’s health harms.
In practice, this meant that the CTR mostly funded “distraction research”--basic science projects that were of
little importance to health related questions.
Below, we will look closely how this dynamic played out in the case of nicotine-related projects. From the 1950s
into the 1970s, the CTR considered nicotine research to be safe because nicotine was found not to cause cancer.
Hence, the CTR poured millions of dollars into projects that sought, for example, to better understand how bacteria
degrade nicotine. Funding nicotine research was perfect for the industry because it was clearly related to tobacco
and yet, the results produced by these projects would almost certainly be irrelevant to questions about smoking
and health. However, as soon as nicotine became linked to addiction in the late 1970s, CTR support for nicotine
research swiftly dropped. To make sure that the CTR would receive the kinds of applications that suited its
purpose, it continually revised its stated funding priorities. At the same time, the CTR could count on its
applicants to self-censor. It wasn’t just that the CTR stopped funding most nicotine research in the 1980s,
they also didn’t receive many applications in this area because researchers knew that a funding agency set up
by the tobacco industry was unlikely to support their addiction research. By looking at the nicotine research
that the CTR supported or rejected, we can gain an understanding for how the industry adapted its distraction
research program for ever new priorities.
Ultimately, one of the main uses of the grant program for the industry was to provide the CTR cover its most
important program, the 140 “Special Projects” through which the industry paid its most trusted allies. These
allied scientists would then, for example, attack scientists who showed that smoking caused cancer or
cardiovascular disease, or that not just mainstream but also second-hand smoke was dangerous. In the Special
Projects, the CTR acted as a “front” for the industry, allowing them to (or really: their lawyers) to
hand-pick the projects and researchers most suited to their needs. In this essay, we will follow Theodor
Sterling’s trajectory from computer scientist to becoming the highest paid CTR scientist to get a sense of
the broad range of topics that the industry was interested in.
Lawyers, Administrators, and the Scientific Advisory Board:
Anatomy of a Grant Application
Before analyzing the grant application dataset, it is worth to have a look at the CTR’s funding process
overall because it reveals the close interplay of applicants, the CTR’s administrative personnel, and its
legal counsel, the law firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon.
For PR purposes, the grant application process was supposed to be simple and straightforward. An applicant
would submit an application to the CTR. There, it would get reviewed by the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB).
The SAB, according to the Frank Statement, was to be a “group of distinguished men from science, medicine,
and education,” who were all “disinterested in the cigarette
“A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers.” January 4 1954.
These “distinguished men” would
either accept the application and start a grant or reject the proposal.
In reality, the process was much more convoluted and involved the industry’s lawyers at every step. The SAB,
consisting of industry “yes men,” had comparatively little say and could be overruled. Below, you can
follow the web of interconnections between applicants, CTR employees, and the industry lawyers through
one particular grant application submitted in 1972 by Thomas Mancuso.
Following Mancuso’s application clearly shows how the CTR managed the grant application process for maximum
industry benefit. The true power didn’t lie with the SAB (which only met up once per quarter) but with the
CTR’s everyday staff as well as with the industry’s lawyers. CTR employees like Robert Hockett, the
scientific director, would often actively solicit applications directly from researchers as we will see
below in the case of Theodor Sterling. Hockett could also send copies of grant applications to Shook,
Hardy & Bacon to evaluate months before the SAB got to review them. And if an application was rejected
by the SAB, Shook, Hardy & Bacon could then seek funding for the application as a Special Project. As
a result, the CTR became a machine to fund either distraction research (through its grant program) or
subversion research (through the Special Projects).
Funding Irrelevance: Nicotine Research at the CTR
The nicotine-related CTR grant application provide a useful case study on planned irrelevance. During the
early years of the CTR, from 1954 to 1975, nicotine-related studies made up 15 to 25% of the CTR grant
See figure 1 below.
That’s not an accident: From the 1950s to the 1970s, nicotine was a “safe” research topic. By the mid-1950s,
it had become clear that nicotine was not the cause of cancer and probably was not responsible for the
cardiovascular diseases associated with smoking. And it would take until the 1980s for nicotine addiction
to become a major research topic.
Tobacco companies, by and large, had caught on to the importance of nicotine in the late
1960s and early 1970s.
Hence, the CTR poured millions of dollars into basic research involving nicotine because the results would
almost certainly be unimportant.
Just as with other research topics, the CTR received applications from and distributed funding widely
across most major research universities. Funding research at top universities was important to the industry.
Shook, Hardy & Bacon’s Bill Shinn noted, for example, that “the industry received a major public relation
“plus” when monies were given to Harvard Medical
R. B. Seligman. “U.S. Exhibit 20,467. Draft Meeting, ‘Meeting in New York - November 15, 1978.’”
17 November 1978.
And indeed, Harvard and Harvard affiliated hospitals submitted the most applications to the CTR overall,
a total of 496. In terms of nicotine-related applications, they (together with the University of Colorado
system) came in second place with 32 applications. At the top spot with 41 applications was the Virginia
Commonwealth University, the institutional home of tobacco industry researchers like Harvey Haag and Paul
An even more damning assessment came from Helmut Wakeham when he reviewed the American Medical
Association’s Education and Research Foundation (AMA-ERF) in 1965. The AMA-ERF was a $10 million hush fund,
created through an unholy alliance of the American Medical Association and the tobacco industry, which
supported distraction research just like the
The industry supported the AMA in its attacks on Medicare and Medicaid (which doctors
regarded as socialized healthcare with its fixed fee schedule) while the AMA neglected to comment on
smoking’s health harms and instead echoed the industry’s mantra that more research was needed. This
“more research was to come out of the $10 million given by the industry to the AMA for the AMA-ERF.
See Richard Kluger. Ashes to Ashes : America's Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the
Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris. New York: Vintage Books, 1997, p. 286 and 360-62.
However, Wakeham, Philip Morris’ Vice President for R&D, strongly disapproved with how the fund distributed
While we recognize that in spite of the very extensive studies which have been made in the past there may
still be gaps in our knowledge of the pharmacology of nicotine which the AMA Committee might feel it
desirable and necessary to close, we are wondering if this area of effort should receive as much attention
as they are giving to it to the almost total exclusion of carcinogenesis which we thought was the major
smoking and health problem.
From the 1950s through the 1970s, the CTR and the AMA-ERF supported nicotine research that was so irrelevant
that it even upset industry insiders. By the 1980s, however, things had changed. Nicotine slowly became
recognized as an addictive substance. In 1980, the DSM-III listed “tobacco dependence” and “tobacco
withdrawal” for the first
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,
3rd edition. 1980, p. 176-178.
Already a year earlier, a Surgeon General’s report had devoted three chapters to behavioral aspects of
smoking and concluded that cigarettes produced
U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Smoking and Health. A Report of the
Surgeon General. Washington, DC: United States Public Health Service, 1979.
By 1988, the authors of a new Surgeon General’s
report had accumulated enough behavioral and neuropharmacological evidence to declare nicotine an addictive
drug on par with heroin and
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Health Consequences of Smoking:
Nicotine Addiction. A Report of the Surgeon General. Washington, DC: United States Public Health Service, 1988.
During the 1980s and ‘90s, nicotine dependence and smoking cessation developed into major research
fields--just not at the CTR. We can compare the CTR dataset to biomedical research more broadly by using
the PubMed dataset.
PubMed is a dataset of over 28 million articles from biomedical journals, maintained by the NIH. By looking
the frequency with which nicotine appears in the article titles, we can get a sense for when nicotine
became a more or less important research topic. Namely, we can ask: What percentage of CTR projects mention
nicotine in the application title? And what percentage of published biomedical article mention nicotine in
the title? This gives us a sense of the relative importance of nicotine at the CTR and in the biomedical
research writ large.
The pattern that this comparison shows is unsurprising: Just as nicotine--and really: nicotine addiction
and smoking cessation--became important topics in biomedical research, CTR applications for nicotine
research fell away.
It’s worth remembering here that the dataset contains CTR applications not CTR funded projects. In other
words, there is nothing per se that would stop a researcher from applying with a project that could
obviously damage the industry. However, grant applications are usually dozens of pages long and take a
lot of effort to write. They are tailored to the funding agency’s goals to maximize success
That pattern is of course not limited to the CTR. The essay you’re reading right now was
supported by a grant from the Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program (TRDRP) under the title “Fighting
Big Tobacco with Big Data.”
Still, a few studies in the addiction/dependence nexus made it through. In 1995, Torgny Svensson of the
Swedish Karolinska Institute received CTR funding for his study on “Nicotine Dependence in Psychiatric Illness: An Experimental
Torgny Svensson. “Research Grant Application Nicotine Dependence in Psychiatric Illness: An Experimental
Study.” 24 May 1994.
A closer examination of the grant reveals why it made it through the review process successfully.
While Svensson’s proposal to study smoking cessation programs for mentally ill patients must have
raised some red flags, his secondary goal-- “to understand the usefulness of nicotine or nicotine-like
drugs for the psychiatrically ill patients”--must have endeared him to the CTR.
Svensson’s study fit right in with other research into the beneficial effects of nicotine, which dominated
the nicotine-related applications that the CTR received from the 1980s onward. From Parkinson’s
(5 applications) to Alzheimer’s (3 applications) and memory/cognition improvement (4 applications),
applications to investigate the positive effects of nicotine became popular (and often funded) at the
Duplicates and grant renewals are not included in these numbers.
(As an aside, whether or not nicotine has beneficial effects does seem to depend at least in part on the
scientific climate. During the 1990s, when researchers tried to convince smokers to give up cigarettes with
the help of nicotine replacement products like gums or patches, we can find quite a few articles on
nicotine’s beneficial effects. In 1991 for example, Murray Jarvik, the co-inventor of the nicotine patch
wrote a whole article on the “Beneficial Effects of
Murray Jarvik. "Beneficial Effects of Nicotine." British Journal of Addiction 86, no. 5
Nicotine research at the CTR, then, is an excellent example of distraction research. From the 1950s to
the 1970s, the CTR poured millions of dollars into basic research involving nicotine with the goal
(sometimes even acknowledged) of producing irrelevant basic research. It wasn’t results the CTR was after,
it was the ability to say that the industry was committed to support more research while the (industry-created)
“controversy” around smoking’s health harms continued.
As soon as it became clear, however, that nicotine and
its liability to produce addiction could become problems of their own to the industry, the CTR stopped
supporting most nicotine research projects.
The fact that the CTR supported researchers at top universities across the country gave
the CTR a sheen of legitimacy. As Bill Shinn had put it, in its capacity as a funding agency, the CTR
functioned as a "shield" for the industry. And it was precisely this shield function that also allowed the
CTR to work as a "front" for research directly attacking the existing consensus about smoking's health harms.
Manufacturing Doubt: The CTR Special Projects
This attack on the scientific consensus played out most importantly in the
140 so-called “Special Projects.” Through these projects, the CTR
(and primarily: its lawyers) funneled money directly to researchers that it deemed most useful to the
industry. In many cases, they were projects that the CTR’s slightly more scientifically oriented scientific
advisory board had rejected,
The original idea, at least for PR purposes, had been that the CTR would be a normal,
peer-review based funding agency.
but which CTR higher-ups or industry lawyers deemed important. To get a sense of the kind of research the
CTR supported through special projects, it’s worth sampling some of the findings that someone at one of
the tobacco industry’s law firms helpfully compiled for many of the projects:
If the CTR applications document how distraction research work--spending millions of dollars on irrelevant
research--the Special Projects document the industry’s frontal attack on the existing consensus about
smoking’s health harms. The CTR grants might have helped to sustain doubt by allowing the industry to
claim that still more research on smoking and health was needed, but it was the Special Projects that
most actively sought to create doubt.
At the center of many of the Special Projects was Theodor D. Sterling. Sterling had started his career as
the Director of the Computing Center at the University of Cincinnati where one of his interests had been to
apply statistical and computational methods in biomedical
Stanton Glantz, John Slade et. al. The Cigarette Papers. Berkeley: University of California Press,
1996, p. 296-301.
A contrarian, he soon become one of the
tobacco industry’s key allies. From 1968 to 1990, he worked on nine different Special Projects, pocketing a
total of $5,560,210 for his troubles. By the time that his last Special Project grant expired, he had long
started his own consulting firm, assuring that the CTR’s plentiful funding didn’t have to pass through the
pesky oversight of a university. In the meantime, he had worked on everything from lung cancer causation
(factors other than smoking are more important) to data collection (National Health Survey data is not
valid), and second hand smoke (unimportant compared to indoor air pollution). Because of the length of
Sterling’s involvement and the range of topics that he worked on, he provides us with an excellent case
study to better understand how the tobacco industry (through the CTR), its lawyers, and scientific allies
worked together to create and sustain fake controversies.
What attracted the attention of the CTR was an article that Sterling published in 1962, entitled “New
Developments in Chronic Disease
Theodor Sterling, John Phair, et. al. "New Developments in Chronic Disease Epidemiology: Competing
Risks and Eligibility." American Industrial Hygiene Association Journal 23.6 (1962): 433-446.
Sterling’s argument was quite straight-forward: The
epidemiological link between smoking and lung cancer might well be a statistical artifact. The support he
presented for this argument, however, was rather flimsy. First, he pointed out that it was rather curious
that smoking seemed to correlate not just with lung cancer but also with other cancers and cardiovascular
disease. “One had a choice, of course,” he noted on this point, “of assuming that increases in all diseases
were due to smoking.” However, the “of course” in that sentence can cue is in on the fact that Sterling had
a different hypothesis, namely that the difference arose because smoking and non-smoking populations were
not equivalent. Why this might be, Sterling admitted, “was never determined satisfactorily nor was much
effort expended in exploring this difference.” But that doesn’t seem to have kept him from assuming that it
was nonetheless true. The rising death rates for all diseases were, for Sterling, an indication that
something must be wrong with smoking data in general.
His specific statistical worry concerned the limited age range of the subjects in data compiled by Joseph
Berkson (who was himself skeptical of a link between smoking and lung cancer). That dataset tracked smokers
and non-smokers aged 60-64 for 44 months and compared their rates of death. Unsurprisingly, smokers had a
fifty percent higher death rate than non-smokers and a ten-fold increased chance to die from lung cancer
specifically. But, Sterling worried, what if this was mainly a product of selecting that particular age
group? Suppose, Sterling seems to argue, that there is some reason that gives smokers a larger chance to
survive to age 60 than non-smokers--only to then die in higher numbers. In that case, it would appear as
if smoking was a major cause of death even if that’s not the case once one expands the age group from 60-64
to ages 20-80. Along similar lines, Sterling worried that the increased death rates of smokers might be a
cohort effect, that is: a similar group of 60-64 year olds 20 years in the future might not show the same
differences between smokers and non-smokers. Why this should be the case, Sterling did not elaborate. Indeed,
the whole study seems to be advanced sophistry that relied on ignoring already published studies that
tracked much larger age groups. The whole study seems to be advanced sophistry that relied on ignoring
already published studies that tracked much larger age groups. Hammond & Horn had studied men from ages
50 to 69, Dorn U.S. veterans from ages
E. Cuyler Hammond, and Daniel Horn. "The Relationship Between Human Smoking Habits and Death Rates:
A Follow-up Study of 187,766 Men." Journal of the American Medical Association 155.15 (1954):
1316-1328, and Harold Dorn "Tobacco Consumption and Mortality from Cancer and Other Diseases."
Public Health Reports 74, no. 7 (1959): 581-594.
Both studies confirmed the increased death rates not just from lung cancer but other cancers and
cardiovascular diseases as well.
Despite these methodological flaws, the article endeared Sterling enough to Robert Hockett, the TIRC’s
Associated Scientific Director, that Hockett invited Sterling to apply for funding. In 1964, the “Tobacco
Industry Research Committee” was renamed to the more neutral and independent sounding “Council for Tobacco
Research” and Sterling got his first assignment: Write a review of the 1964 Surgeon General’s
Theodor Sterling. “An Evaluation and Review of the Report on Smoking and Health by the Advisory
Committee to the Surgeon General.” March 1964.
The Surgeon General’s Report was a consensus report which concluded that smoking caused cancer as well as heart
diseases beyond all reasonable doubt. Sterling, unsurprisingly still had doubts. The fact that much of the
evidence cited by the Surgeon General’s advisory committee was based on statistical associations between
agent and diseases bugged him. “For many purists,” he noted, “such an association does not reach the status
of scientific fact until the disease itself can be called forth or prevented under controlled
Ibid., p. 4.
Of course, cancer could be produced in controlled conditions but only in animal models, so Sterling could
maintain that it was an open question whether humans would react in the same way. His overall conclusion
was that the Surgeon General’s report constituted not a scientific but a public health evaluation, which
introduced “a definite bias as far as the scientific decision process is concerned.” In other words,
Sterling took issue with the fact that the Surgeon General was ready to close the case and try to save
lives even if he was only 99.9% sure that smoking caused cancer. A real scientist, he seems to argue,
would have waited another twenty years to root out the remaining
Naturally, the tobacco industry would have moved the goal posts for what constituted proof further and
further out during those twenty years, meaning that if we took Sterling’s conclusion seriously, the
case would never be closed--exactly what the CTR wanted.
Sterling’s eclecticism (or: opportunism) also meant that his expertise in any given area was shallow and
the overall scientific value of his work limited. One particular conference presentation gone awry is a
case in point. In 1972, Sterling was invited to give a paper at the annual meeting of the American
Association for the Advancement of
JMB. “Report on Difficulties of Measuring the Effects of Air Pollution vs the Effects of Smoking - A
Paper Presented to Theodor D. Sterling at the 138th Meeting of the American Association for the
Advancement of Science. December 27 1972.” 10 January 1973.
His presentation, “Difficulties of Measuring the Effects of
Air Pollution vs the Effects of Smoking,” was mainly an attack on epidemiologists like Hammond, charging
that they did not make their data freely available for review, which might a valid charge in and of itself.
However, the presentation must have really gone off the rails. A reviewer noted on Sterling’s paper that
he was “presenting no new data and it was most obvious that the author had an axe to grind--the paper has
no scientific merit or worth.” The CTR’s reporter noted that a “defensive, poorly written paper is poor
public relation for the Tobacco Industry.” Still, the CTR can’t have minded the performance too much--they
kept funding Sterling’s many projects.
And given how well Sterling was paid by the CTR, it’s unlikely that he much cared about how he was
perceived. All in all, he received $5,560,210 from 1968 to 1990 for his work on nine different special
projects. However, Sterling also worked directly for tobacco companies as well as the law firms that
represented them and it is likely that he receive more than $10 million in
Robert Proctor. Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition.
University of California Press, 2011, p. 278.
Technically the CTR funding was intended to only support research. Practically, however, we can assume that a good
chunk of it went directly to Sterling. While he initially listed his universities as the institutions, from
1979 onward, his university affiliation was replaced with “Theodor D. Sterling and Associates Ltd.” in
Vancouver even though he continued to teach at Simon Fraser
“Special Project Number 105. Evaluation of the Interaction Between Geographic, Geocultural, Smoking and
Health Variables and Indices.”
His invoices certainly seem to
have increased after starting his own company, reaching $300,000 per year for a single project in the early
“Special Project Number 71G, 71H, 71I, 71J, 71K, 71L, 71M.”
This was enough for the CTR to start inquiring why he needed such a large budget but not enough
for them to cancel the
Ibid., p. 25.
The going for Sterling was good enough that he even got his two sons
involved. In 1981, he was the co-PI in a $200,160 project on “sick building syndrome” with his eldest
son Elia Sterling that was bankrolled directly by Brown &
E. Pebbles. “T.D. Sterling and Elia Sterling.” 4 May 1981.
His second son, in turn, received
$70,000 for Special Project 130 to study the “difficulties inherent in attempts to ascribe ‘passive’
smoking to tobacco smoke through use of questionnaires
“Special Project Number 130. Investigation of Self-Reporting Questionnaire for Environmental
Sterling’s case makes it clear what Robert Seligman meant when talked about the CTR acting as a “front” for
the industry: Through the CTR Special Projects, the tobacco industry funneled millions of dollars to its
most trusted allies. In return, the industry’s point men like Sterling, Feinstein, or Hickey mounted
frontal attacks on researchers who had concluded that smoking caused cancer or that second-hand smoke was
harmful. At the same time, the industry could call on these men to testify for them in court cases or
congressional hearings or have them interviewed for newspaper or magazine stories. By amplifying the
voices of these bought researchers, the industry could make it appear as if there was still a major
controversy about smoking’s health harms.
But the CTR could only act as a front because of the thousands of projects that it supported through its grant program.
It was this mass of largely irrelevant projects that gave the CTR the appearance of supporting objective,
disinterested scientists, and which allowed it to hide its most important Special Projects.
Funding acknowledgement from Theodor Sterling, W.L. Rosenbaum, and J.J. Weinkam, J. (1992). "Bias in the Attribution of Lung Cancer
as Cause of Death and Its Possible Consequences for Calculating Smoking-Related Risks." Epidemiology
Vol. 3, No. 1 (1992): 11-16.
Project awardees would sometimes not acknowledge the funding they
The acknowledgements (or lack thereof) are usually listed together with the Special Project. See for
example “Special Project: 94, 94R1, 94R2, 94A, 94B, 94C, 94D, 94E, 94F, 94G, 94H, 94I, 94J. On
Computer Analysis of Health Related Data.”
they usually had no problem noting that they were supported “by a special research grant from the
Council for Tobacco Research, Inc.” Who could ultimately be expected to distinguish between a
“research grant” and a “special research grant?” It was the close integration of legitimate if irrelevant
research with lawyer-selected
Special Projects that made the CTR a valuable investment for the industry.
Taken together, the CTR’s distraction and subversion research proved devastatingly effective at
deceiving smokers about the harms they incurred by smoking. We can track the reach of this deception through
public opinion polls, which both the tobacco industry and its opponents conducted from the 1950s
For more on ways to measure smokers’ ignorance, see Proctor, Golden Holocaust, Ch. 18.
A 1966 U.S. Public Health survey, for example, found that more than 60% of current smokers strongly or
mildly agreed that the “connection between smoking and disease is not yet proved because it is only based on
U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. “Use of Tobacco: Practices, Attitudes, Knowledge,
and Beliefs. United States - Fall 1964 and Spring 1966.” July 1969, p. 743.
While about 50% of current smokers agreed that smoking is the major cause of lung cancer, a full 72%
thought that being overweight is more harmful to health than
Ibid., p. 689-690.
In fact, it was only during the 1970s and ‘80s that a majority of smokers came to understand cigarettes as
a major cause of death. Still, even in 1982, the Roper Organization, in a study for the Tobacco Institute,
could report that “in context with other problems that can affect health and safety, smoking and being around
people who are smoking are low on the list of things people are concerned about
Roper Organization. “A Study of Public Attitudes Toward Cigarette Smoking and the Tobacco Industry in
1982.” July 1982, p. 3.
In fact, only 53% of respondents thought that smoking a pack of cigarette per day “makes a great deal of
difference in longevity” compared with 77% for “living under a lot of tension and stress” or 43% for
regularly eating high cholesterol food.
Ibid., p. 21.
Through its support of distraction and subversion research as well as its extended disinformation campaigns,
the tobacco industry managed to create precisely the smokers it needed: Vaguely aware that smoking was in
some form harmful (meaning that they would lose a lawsuit against the industry) but ignorant of the true
risks of smoking; ignorant of the fact, for example, that if they continued to smoke one or more packs per
day, they would lose, on average, 10 years of their life and have a 50% or higher chance of dying from a smoking-related
Richard Doll, Richard Peto et. al. "Mortality in Relation to Smoking: 50 Years' Observations on Male
British Doctors." British Medical Journal 328, no. 7455 (2004): 1519-1528; Jha, Prabhat Jha,
Chinthanie Ramasundarahettige et. al. "21st-Century Hazards of Smoking and Benefits of Cessation in the
United States." New England Journal of Medicine 368, no. 4 (2013): 341-350.
This ignorance wasn’t accidental. It was the deliberate product of a campaign, directed by the industry’s
lawyers and PR experts, to produce doubt and ignorance under the guise of supporting scientific research.