Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil: The Story of In fact - Part Two

In the course of my years as a foreign correspondent I was credited with several worldwide "scoops," in which I take no pride whatever. All this journalism is ephemeral, scoops are accidental, and eventually it all signifies nothing.

If there is, however, a single expose for which I do want credit, it is that of helping to start and continuing for about 30 years the campaign to enlighten the American people about tobacco as a shortener of life and a cause of cancer.

This story represents that the American press _ with the usual exception of about one percent _ suppresses the news and does not represent the general welfare of the American people. Here is how the story originated.

In 1933, under the direction of Dr. Raymond Pearl of the Department of Biology at Johns Hopkins University, a study of all deaths of patients from age 30 on, classified as smokers, light smokers and heavy smokers, was begun to find if possible the influence of tobacco on human longevity.

A summary of the study, involving almost 7,000 persons, was available to the press in 1938. Science Service sent out an item on the study on March 4, 1938. The May 1938 issue of Scientific American carried the report. It added its own conclusion: "the smoking of tobacco was associated definitely with an impairment of life duration and the amount or degree of this impairment increased as the habitual amount of smoking increased."

On February 24, 1938, Dr. Pearl addressed the New York Academy of Medicine on longevity, presenting for the first time _ and making available to the press that was present _ the first life tables ever constructed showing that tobacco shortens the lives of every man and woman who uses it.

Dr. Pearl found that between the ages of 30 and 60, 61 percent more heavy smokers die than non-smokers. A human being's span of life is impaired in direct proportion to the amount of tobacco he uses, but the impairment among even light smokers is "measurable and significant."

The wire services and special correspondents for all of the New York newspapers heard Dr. Pearl tell the story, a story sensational enough "to scare the life out of tobacco manufacturers and make the tobacco users' flesh creep," as Time commented in its March 7 issue. But of the eight daily New York newspapers of the time, six did not run the story. The World-Telegram and the Times each ran a few paragraphs. A wider search showed that the only other major metropolitan daily newspaper that covered the story was the Washington Post.

The tables had been seen by the press. The leading authority in America, if not the world, had made a great discovery and presented the first scientific study in a controversial matter in which some 50 million Americans consuming billions of cigarettes were interested, and 75 percent of the New York press suppressed the story, 25 percent half-suppressed it, 100 percent of the press manhandled it.

When the nationally broadcast radio program "Town Meeting of the Air" announced a debate between Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and press lord Frank Gannett entitled, "Do We Have a Free Press?" for January 16, 1939, I provided Ickes with the information on news suppression, including the tobacco story.

In the question period during the program, someone asked Mr. Ickes for illustrations to prove his points. He mentioned one or two examples of news suppression he got elsewhere and added almost casually:

"I understand that at Johns Hopkins University there is a very sensational finding resulting from the study of the effect of cigarette smoking that has not appeared, so far as I know, in any newspaper in the United States. I wonder if that is because the tobacco companies are such large advertisers?"

"Town Meeting of the Air" then had an audience of 7-10 million listeners, and, as this debate was later declared the most popular in years, it is likely that more than 10 million people heard Ickes' statement. The majority undoubtedly paid little attention to it. But it was the first mention in America _ if not in the world _ of tobacco as a killer which was heard by millions.

The reaction of the press was ferocious. Because Mr. Ickes had said "in any newspaper" that same press threw a journalistic bombshell and attacked and smeared him. With the usual few honest exceptions, the press attacked Ickes with cartoons, editorials, news stories, biased headlines, syndicated columns, misstatements and false statements.

But his statement was correct. Although the wire services had sent the story to every paper in America, although the New York papers had science reporters present and the Science Service had sent an advance account to numerous big papers, 98 percent of the big city press, the press which accepts the advertising from the cigarette companies (which amounted to over $50 million at the time) suppressed the story.

With the establishment of my own newsletter, I was able for 10 years to carry on a crusade against tobacco; I published no less than a hundred items on this subject in the 500 issues of In fact , using almost every one of them as illustration and proof that the mass media was still venal because it suppressed news on this suppressed news on this subject.

The first In fact mention of cigarette smoking as a cause of lung cancer appeared in an article offered me by an authority on the subject, Dr. Edwin J. Grace of the Grace Clinic in Brooklyn. It caused a great sensation. Reports came to me that thousands of notables in Hollywood, second only to New York in my subscription count, had stopped smoking _ at least temporarily. Dr. Grace also mentioned the deleterious effects of smoking during pregnancy, a subject which did not reach the commercial press until 1960.

During the In fact decade the Federal Trade Commission courageously continued its attack by issue fraud orders against Camel, Pall Mall, Lucky Strike, Old Gold and Philip Morris, naming them, finding them guilty of false advertising in newspapers, magazines and on the radio. There were 22 charges of falsity against Camel cigarettes. In every instance the FTC allegations were sustained.

The American Medical Association, which should have been first in the field, rather belatedly took up the subject. Its triple report, "The Effects of Smoking Cigarettes," appeared in its Journal of June 15, 1944; it was one of the most serious indictments to that date, but the New York Times gave it only six inches, the rest of the press generally ignored it.

Dr. Evarts A. Graham, addressing the American Congress of Surgery in Chicago in 1949, made the most important report to that date on smoking as a cause of lung cancer. The Associated Press sent the news out in full, but almost all newspapers in America again either ignored it entirely or if they did print it, ran only a few paragraphs.

At about the same time Dr. Alton Ochsner, professor of surgery at Tulane, informed the Rocky Mountain Cancer Society in Denver that he had "found in the past 20 years that the incidence of cancer of the lung has soared upward in a line parallel with that of the cigarette sales chart." He also said, "I don't smoke, I'm afraid to."

Since Dr. Ochsner was nationally known, the AP assigned one of its reporters, Elliott Chaze, to report. His original story began: "The cigarette companies won't like this, but a man who ought to know thinks a lot of citizens are digging their graves with their own lungs."

One hour after Chaze's report was sent, the AP send out a bulletin to kill the story, declaring it was "controversial." A substitute story sent 90 minutes late eliminated the reference to citizens digging their graves, to references in the story on the "dim view" Dr. Ochsner took regarding cigarette advertising and removed all of Dr. Ochsner's comments on the increase of cancer among women.

In the course of In fact's 10 years we noted frequently that the AP sometimes sent out tobacco-and-death stories, the United Press rarely and Hearst's International News Service almost never. But what was even more damning in passing judgement on the press was the fact that many times when they did receive the news which the agencies did not suppress, the individual newspapers by the hundreds themselves suppressed it.

In time, it had become impossible for the media to omit all news of tobacco the killer. The reader may well ask how _ in the face of a quarter century of scientific reports by medical associations, the actions of many governments and the work of the honest liberal weeklies _ how it was possible for people to buy and smoke more cigarettes knowing that the disease and death rate due to smoking was increasing.

What happened was that every time a report came out saying unqualifiedly that cigarettes cause cancer, a vast smoke curtain of doubt or confusion was blown up and spread throughout the nation by the advertising and public relations branches of the tobacco industry. The confusion was spread by the same 99 percent of the press that suppressed the Pearl story. It could no longer suppress the news, but it could still confuse the public and raise doubts in smoker's minds.

Between 1938, when Dr. Pearl issued his report, and 1964, when the office of the U.S. Surgeon General released its first conclusive report on smoking and cancer, about 7,000 scientific reports were published, all agreeing that tobacco was harmful and cigarettes killed and maimed people throughout the world by the hundreds of thousands.

For every report that the American Cancer Society, the Royal Medical Society of Great Britain or the Mayo Clinic produced in the 1950s and '60s, the tobacco industry through its press relations department appended a statement that disease and death are only "statistically proved." The American press invariably used the tobacco industry's releases, giving them equal space with the reports of learned bodies and governments. The doubt and confusion kept the cigarette market booming.

The war started by Mr. Ickes in 1939 by quoting a few documented facts on smoking and death, a war that continues to be waged in the United States, will not be stopped until government subsidies are stopped and advertising prohibited. To prohibit raising tobacco and to prohibit smoking, although a thousand times as important to public health as the banning of liquor would be, is considered impossible, judging from what happened in the drunken Prohibition era. But the tobacco story will remain one of the most outrageous chapters in the history of American journalism, not, of course, as incredible as those dealing with press support of human slavery for 200 years, nevertheless a frightening proof of how men of wealth and power control the press and, through it, public opinion.


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