Space & Innovation

Tobacco Companies Still Battling Smoking-Cancer Link

While the industry publicly admits tobacco causes cancer, they’re still relying on an old-fashioned playbook in the courtroom to hide such a link in individual cases.

Do you remember a time way back when the link between smoking and cancer wasn't clearly established? Anyone who was around at the time is at least 60 years old at this point.

Back in 1964, the Surgeon General released a landmark study that linked tobacco with potentially fatal health risks, such as heart disease and lung cancer. Small-scale studies beginning in the late 1920s suggested a possible connection, and major research efforts were underway by the 1950s, as explained by the American Cancer Society. But the Surgeon General report marked the first time the federal government took a stand on the issue.

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Tobacco companies would publish their own findings for decades, employing their own scientists to manufacture a debate. Tobacco use over the years leads to negative, often fatal health consequences. Although often connected to lung cancer, smoking can cause cancer almost anywhere in the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including the blood, liver, kidneys, throat and stomach.

Despite billions of dollars paid in settlements, the tobacco industry continues to fight lawsuits against cancer patients who file suit claiming that the companies' products gave them cancer. These companies also employ a small stable of otolaryngologists - ear, nose and throat doctors - to testify on behalf of the cigarette manufacturers, according to a study released today in the journal Laryngoscope.

The study found that six board-certified otolaryngologists, paid as much as $100,000 for a single case by the tobacco industry, testified in more than 50 cases using scientifically invalid support to back up their opinions. "I was shocked by the degree to which these physicians were willing to testify, in my opinion in an unscientific way, to deny a dying plaintiff - suffering the aftermath of a lifetime of smoking - of a fair trial," said Robert Jackler of the Stanford University School of Medicine in a statement.

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If smoking wasn't the cause of the plaintiffs' head and neck cancers in these 50 cases, what did then lead these people to contract these fatal diseases, according to the physicians' testimonies? The doctors pointed the finger at everything from alcohol to mouthwash to salted fish and more. Doctors and lawyers on behalf of the tobacco companies would pick up on the most minute details of a plaintiff's lifestyle, even something as simple as living in a city, to create doubt in the minds of jurors.

"An obvious fallacy of this argument lies in the fact that literally billions of nonsmoking people are exposed regularly to gasoline fumes, use cleaning solvents, eat salted fish or live in urban environments," the journal article explains. "Were these causative factors for head and neck cancer, with even a minute fraction of the potency of tobacco, the rate of head and neck cancer among nonsmokers would be much greater than what has been observed."

Given the increasing popularity of e-cigarettes and vaporizers, this sort of study should raise the alarm of any consumers who use these products. Safety evaluations on e-cigarettes are still being conducted, and researchers are working to identify health risks.

In a way, this is almost similar to the state of tobacco research in the early 20th century. If these modern tobacco products pose the same kind of health risks as their combustible counterparts, how long will it take for research to definitively verify that connection? And once that connection is established, what recourse will be available if consumers are misled about the safety of their devices?

June 21, 2011 --

The U.S. government on Tuesday unveiled a new set of cigarette warnings with graphic images of a lifeless body, a scarred mouth and a blackened lung in order to highlight the health risks of smoking. "Beginning September 2012, FDA will require larger, more prominent cigarette health warnings on all cigarette packaging and advertisements in the United States," the Food and Drug Administration said on its website.

The warnings mark the first change in cigarette warnings in more than 25 years and are "a significant advancement in communicating the dangers of smoking," the agency added. One of the images, shown here, shows an apparently dead man with his chest sewn up. The caption reads: "Warning: Smoking can kill you."

According to the FDA, smoking kills 1,200 people a day in the United States alone. Another picture shows a close-up on a mouth filled with scattered, brown teeth and a lip with an open sore, warning: "Cigarettes cause cancer."

Smoking causes 90 percent of all lung cancer in men and 80 percent in women, and has been linked to several other cancers, according to the FDA.

The new warnings also seek to warn pregnant women and new parents of the dangers of smoking, with a drawn image showing a premature baby in a hospital incubator and a picture showing a real baby staring at a plume of smoke. The warnings will occupy the top 50 percent of the front and rear panels of cigarette packs and the top 20 percent of cigarette advertisements.

"The introduction of these warnings is expected to have a significant public health impact by decreasing the number of smokers, resulting in lives saved, increased life expectancy, and lower medical costs," the website said. -- Text by AFP