Big Tobacco, Big Oil

Tobacco executives testifying

Oil executives testifying








My gracious host during the AGU in San Francisco was a veteran of the tobacco wars, so we had some interesting chats. Many people consider the tobacco battle won, but it’s actually just shifted to new fronts.

There are many lessons to be learned from the fifty-year battle with Big Tobacco, which famously perfected the art of industrial disinformation.   They successfully stalled action against marketing cigarettes to kids for forty years after the discovery that tobacco is addictive and causes cancer.  Naomi Oreskes’ Merchants of Doubt documents in detail the direct lineage from tobacco to the climate disinformation campaign, which involves not only identical tactics but was launched by some of the very same individuals and PR firms.

The Climate Reality Project produced this riveting video on the same theme, including laughable cigarette ads (“10,000 doctors were asked, ‘Which cigarette do you smoke, Doctor?’ The brand named most was Camel!”) reassuring smokers on health, and featuring cold war physicist Frederick Seitz, who played a leading role in both disinformation campaigns.

DOUBT from The Climate Reality Project on Vimeo.

Their tenacity is striking.    An industry producing harmful but profitable products doesn’t give up, no matter how strong the science.  They just retreat to a new line of defense and keep fighting.   The exception:  when an industry finds an safer but equally profitable substitute.    In the 90’s, the chemical industry fought tooth-and-nail against a ban on ozone-eating CFL’s until they discovered that they could make even more money from ozone-friendly substitute refrigerants.    Bingo!    The Montreal Protocol was born.

Big Tobacco, on the other hand, cannot easily substitute another product.   What other product is as satisfying, addictive, slow-to-kill, and profitable as tobacco?    Fossil fuels arguably share that lucrative suite of traits, but that market is already locked up by it’s own oligopoly.

However, if the energy companies ever manage to find a way to corner the market for alternative energy, while generating  even higher profits, the climate denial movement will rapidly “run out of gas.”

I used to wonder how tobacco and fossil fuel executives could look themselves in the mirror — and look their children in the eye.   But that was before I appreciated the full power of cognitive dissonance and self-delusion, especially when vast riches are at stake.

Upton Sinclair dryly observed, “It’s hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it.”    I wonder what Sinclair would have said about the current case, when  the stakes for oil executives are not ordinary salaries, but multi-million-dollar compensation packages.*

Some say tobacco and oil executives are “just doing their job,” which is defined by their boards — and by society at large — as maximizing profit as quickly as they can, any legal way they can, regardless of consequences.    Given that reality, it falls to the rest of us, through  representative government, to make sure that the full cost of any collateral damage — externalities such as pollution — to bystanders is priced into their products.


* In 2010, the median oil and gas CEO compensation was $13.7 million (Wall Street Journal).    Topping the list is Exxon’s Roy Tillerson, who brought home $28,952,558 last year.

For perspective, however, it’s worth noting that at that rate of income, it would still take Tillerson 1,727 years to amass the wealth of the Koch Brothers, who in recent years surpassed Exxon as the chief funders of climate disinformation.   Charles and David Koch’s combined net worth rose to $50 billion in 2011, placing them 4th and 5th on the Forbes list of “The Richest People in America.”

5 thoughts on “Big Tobacco, Big Oil

  1. Tom Smerling Post author

    Yup. And with both, the question is whether the instinct can be directed toward something constructive. Cats can keep the pantry free of mice, but if you aren’t careful, devour your pet hamster. In college, we once tried to train our cats to eat cockroaches, with very limited success.

  2. Andy Extance

    As it happens I’m just reading Merchants of Doubt for my science book group – it’s an amazing read, very inspiring. It’s not just tobacco and global warming – it’s also about how doubt was cast on the science behind acid rain, SDI, the ozone hole, and DDT. But the bottom line is that companies across many industries whose business might suffer (while people are protected) because of regulation are attacking various forms of good science to try and protect completely unregulated markets. To me, that’s a horrible motivation for putting our future at risk from changes in the climate.

    And that behaviour is summed up in an Isaiah Berlin quote that Oreskes and Conway use, which ties in quite closely with what John said: “Liberty for wolves is death to the lambs”. Did you know that one John?

    1. John

      I’m part way through ‘Merchants of Doubt’ at the moment, Andy. It’s a good read and very true to the facts.

      I think the important issue here is for us all to understand the clear role of the parties that make up society. Our political structures, mandated by the electorate, exist to lay down the rules, mark out the pitch and police the game. The role of business is to do whatever they can — within the rules of that game — to maximise their return for shareholders. Neither party should seek to interfere with the other, which is what happens when business starts to try to influence politicians. Business should remember to abide by the referee’s decision — which is final.



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