Tobacco industry playbook

Last updated
Gift offered by tobacco industry lobbyists to Dutch politician Kartika Liotard in September 2013 Tabakslobby.jpg
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 precis 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 including: [13] [14]

According to the physician Jonathan M. Samet, the Tobacco Industry's Playbook was imitated in different economic sectors "to undermine epidemiologic evidence, particularly around environmental pollutants." More particularly, writers payed by the "tobacco industry on the issue of SHS later became involved in attacking climate research as surrogates for the energy industry." [15]


The playbook has been adopted by the fossil fuel industry, in its efforts to stave off global action on climate change, [1] [14] and by those seeking to undermine the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) more generally. [16] The manufacture and promotion of uncertainty, especially, has been identified as inspired directly by the tobacco industry. [6] [17]

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. [16] 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. [18] 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. [18] 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. [19] [20] Both Fred Singer and Frederick Seitz are prominent figures in climate change denial who previously worked for the tobacco industry. [21] [18]

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. [18]

Opponents of vaping also identify elements of the tobacco playbook in the e-cigarette industry's response to health concerns. [22] [23] 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. [24] [25] 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, [26] including use of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs as a PR strategy. [27] Research contracts issued as part of CSR programmes allow soft drinks manufacturers to bury inconvenient results. [28]

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, [29] with the New York Times noting a number of tobacco figures involved in the NFL's defence. [30]

The World Health Organization has subsequently published a tobacco control playbook. [31]

Related Research Articles

Fred Singer American physicist

Siegfried Fred Singer was an Austrian-born American physicist and emeritus professor of environmental science at the University of Virginia, trained as an atmospheric physicist. He was known for rejecting the scientific consensus on several issues:

Global Climate Coalition

The Global Climate Coalition (GCC) (1989–2001) was an international lobbyist group of businesses that opposed action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and publicly challenged the science behind global warming. The GCC was the largest industry group active in climate policy and the most prominent industry advocate in international climate negotiations. The GCC was involved in opposition to the Kyoto Protocol, and played a role in blocking ratification by the United States. The coalition knew it could not deny the scientific consensus, but sought to sow doubt over the scientific consensus on climate change and create manufactured controversy. The GCC dissolved in 2001 after membership declined in the face of improved understanding of the role of greenhouse gases in climate change and of public criticism.

The expression junk science is used to describe scientific data, research, or analysis considered by the person using the phrase to be spurious or fraudulent. The concept is often invoked in political and legal contexts where facts and scientific results have a great amount of weight in making a determination. It usually conveys a pejorative connotation that the research has been untowardly driven by political, ideological, financial, or otherwise unscientific motives.

Frederick Seitz

Frederick Seitz was an American physicist and a pioneer of solid state physics.

The Heidelberg Appeal, authored by Michel Salomon, was an appeal directed against the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The Heidelberg Appeal's goal was similar to the later published Leipzig Declaration. Before the publication, Fred Singer, who has initiated several petitions like the Heidelberg Appeal, and Michel Salomon, had organized a conference in Heidelberg, which led to that document. It was published at the last day of the Rio Summit 1992 and warned governments that they don't base their policy on environmental policy, which they regarded as "pseudoscientific arguments or false and nonrelevant data." It was brought forward by the tobacco and asbestos industry, to support the climate-denying Global Climate Coalition. According to SourceWatch the appeal is "a scam perpetrated by the asbestos and tobacco industries in support of the Global Climate Coalition". Both industries had no direct reason to deny global warming, but rather wanted to promote their "sound science" agenda, which basically states that industry-funded science is good science and science contradicting those science is bad science or "junk science".Proof is needed that asbestos and tobacco industries are the financiers or organizers of that event.

Patrick Michaels American climatologist

Patrick J. ("Pat") Michaels is an American former agricultural climatologist. Michaels was a senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute until Spring 2019. Until 2007, he was research professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, where he had worked from 1980.

The politicization of science is the manipulation of science for political gain. It occurs when government, business, or advocacy groups use legal or economic pressure to influence the findings of scientific research or the way it is disseminated, reported or interpreted. The politicization of science may also negatively affect academic and scientific freedom, and as a result it is considered taboo to mix politics with science. Historically, groups have conducted various campaigns to promote their interests in defiance of scientific consensus, and in an effort to manipulate public policy.

George C. Marshall Institute

The George C. Marshall Institute (GMI) was a nonprofit conservative think tank in the United States. It was established in 1984 with a focus on science and public policy issues and was initially active mostly in the area of defense policy. Since the late 1980s, the institute put forward environmental skepticism views, and in particular promoted fringe views regarding the scientific consensus on climate change. The think tank received extensive financial support from oil companies.

Steven J. Milloy is a lawyer, lobbyist, author and Fox News commentator. His close financial and organizational ties to tobacco and oil companies have been the subject of criticism, as Milloy has consistently disputed the scientific consensus on climate change and the health risks of second-hand smoke.

Heartland Institute Conservative and libertarian American think tank

The Heartland Institute is an American conservative and libertarian public policy think tank founded in 1984 and based in Arlington Heights, Illinois. The institute conducts work on issues including education reform, government spending, taxation, healthcare, tobacco policy, global warming, hydraulic fracturing, socialism, constitutional reform, information technology, and free-market environmentalism.

Naomi Oreskes American historian, scientist, academic

Naomi Oreskes is an American historian of science. She became Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University in 2013, after 15 years as Professor of History and Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego. She has worked on studies of geophysics, environmental issues such as global warming, and the history of science. In 2010, Oreskes co-authored Merchants of Doubt which identified some parallels between the climate change debate and earlier public controversies, notably the tobacco industry's campaign to obscure the link between smoking and serious disease.

A global warming conspiracy theory invokes claims that the scientific consensus on global warming is based on conspiracies to produce manipulated data or suppress dissent. It is one of a number of tactics used in climate change denial to attempt to legitimize political and public controversy disputing this consensus. Conspiracy theorists typically allege that, through worldwide acts of professional and criminal misconduct, the science behind global warming has been invented or distorted for ideological or financial reasons.

Fossil fuels lobby

"Fossil fuels lobby" is a term used to label the paid representatives of large fossil fuel and aviation corporations who attempt to influence governmental policy. Big Oil companies such as ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Total S.A., Chevron Corporation, and ConocoPhillips are among the largest corporations associated with the fossil fuels lobby.

Climate change denial denial of the scientific consensus on climate change

Climate change denial, or global warming denial is denial, dismissal, or unwarranted doubt that contradicts the scientific consensus on climate change, including the extent to which it is caused by humans, its effects on nature and human society, or the potential of adaptation to global warming by human actions. Many who deny, dismiss, or hold unwarranted doubt about the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming self-label as "climate change skeptics", which several scientists have noted is an inaccurate description. Climate change denial can also be implicit when individuals or social groups accept the science but fail to come to terms with it or to translate their acceptance into action. Several social science studies have analyzed these positions as forms of denialism, pseudoscience, or propaganda.

<i>Merchants of Doubt</i> 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming is a 2010 non-fiction book by American historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. It identifies parallels between the global warming controversy and earlier controversies over tobacco smoking, acid rain, DDT, and the hole in the ozone layer. Oreskes and Conway write that in each case "keeping the controversy alive" by spreading doubt and confusion after a scientific consensus had been reached was the basic strategy of those opposing action. In particular, they show that Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, and a few other contrarian scientists joined forces with conservative think tanks and private corporations to challenge the scientific consensus on many contemporary issues.

Arthur Neslen is a British-born journalist and author of two books about identity in the Middle East. Occupied Minds: A Journey Through the Israeli Psyche was published by Pluto Press in 2006 and In Your Eyes A Sandstorm: Ways of Being Palestinian was published by University of California Press in October, 2011. He is also the author of the booklet Gaza: Dignity Under Siege which was published by CIDSE in 2009. All three are collections of interviews and photographs.

<i>Merchants of Doubt</i> (film) 2014 American documentary film by Robert Kenner

Merchants of Doubt is a 2014 American documentary film directed by Robert Kenner and inspired by the 2010 book of the same name by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. The film traces the use of public relations tactics that were originally developed by the tobacco industry to protect their business from research indicating health risks from smoking. The most prominent of these tactics is the cultivation of scientists and others who successfully cast doubt on the scientific results. Using a professional magician, the film explores the analogy between these tactics and the methods used by magicians to distract their audiences from observing how illusions are performed. For the tobacco industry, the tactics successfully delayed government regulation until long after the establishment of scientific consensus about the health risks from smoking. As its second example, the film describes how manufacturers of flame retardants worked to protect their sales after toxic effects of the retardants were reported in the scientific literature. The central concern of the film is the ongoing use of these tactics to forestall governmental action to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in response to the risk of global climate change.

<i>Climate Change Denial</i> 2011 non-fiction book about climate change denial by Haydn Washington and John Cook

Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand is a 2011 non-fiction book about climate-change denial, coauthored by Haydn Washington and John Cook, with a foreword by Naomi Oreskes. Washington had a background in environmental science prior to authoring the work; Cook, educated in physics, founded (2007) the website Skeptical Science, which compiles peer-reviewed evidence of global warming. The book was first published in hardcover and paperback formats in 2011 by Earthscan, a division of Routledge.

The ExxonMobil climate change controversy concerns ExxonMobil's activities related to global warming, especially their opposition to established climate science. Since the 1970s, ExxonMobil engaged in climate research, and later began lobbying, advertising, and grant making, some of which were conducted with the purpose of delaying widespread acceptance and action on global warming.

May Boeve

May Boeve is an American environmental activist and the executive director of Boeve helped launch along with six other undergraduates and environmentalist author Bill McKibben while she was finishing her undergraduate degree at Middlebury in 2007.


  1. 1 2 "The Disinformation Playbook". Union of Concerned Scientists . 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 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.
  5. The cigarette papers . Berkeley: University of California Press. 1996. pp.  190. ISBN   978-0-520-92099-6. OCLC   42855812.
  6. 1 2 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 . Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  9. "Climate Change Denial Is the Original Fake News" . Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  10. "Who are the Deniers?". State of California, Governor's Office of Planning and Research. Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  11. Stobbe, Mike. "Historic smoking report marks 50th anniversary" . 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. Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  14. 1 2 Readfearn, Graham (2015-03-05). "Doubt over climate science is a product with an industry behind it". The Guardian. ISSN   0261-3077 . Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  15. Samet, Jonathan M. (February 10, 2016). Epidemiology and the Tobacco Epidemic: How Research on Tobacco and Health Shaped Epidemiology (pdf). American Journal of Epidemiology. 183. Oxford University Press. pp. 394–402. doi:10.1093/aje/kwv156. ISSN   0002-9262. OCLC   6007835324. PMID   26867777 . Retrieved March 31, 2021.
  16. 1 2 Johns, David Merritt; Levy, Karen. "How Trump's war on science is borrowing from the tobacco industry playbook". Washington Post. Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  17. Corner, Adam (2014-01-31). "The communication of uncertainty is hindering climate change action". The Guardian. ISSN   0261-3077 . Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  18. 1 2 3 4 Monbiot, George (2006-09-19). "Climate change and Big Tobacco". The Guardian. ISSN   0261-3077 . Retrieved 2020-04-23.
  19. 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.
  20. Hulac, Benjamin (August 25, 2016). "Coal Executive Says His Industry Must Confront Climate Change". ClimateWire.Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  21. "Climate denier Fred Singer complains about Merchants of Doubt". Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  22. "How the Vaping Industry Is Using a Defensive Tactic Pioneered Decades Ago by Big Tobacco" . Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  23. 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.
  24. Desk, Medibulletin (2019-03-15). "Big tobacco bringing same market strategy into sugary drinks" . Retrieved 2020-04-23.
  25. "Soft Drink Companies Copy Tobacco Playbook to Lure Young Users".Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  26. Nestle, Marion (2015-08-11). "Coca-Cola says its drinks don't cause obesity. Science says otherwise". The Guardian. ISSN   0261-3077 . Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  27. 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.
  28. "Contracts give Coca-Cola power to 'quash' health research, study suggests". 2019-05-08.Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  29. 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.
  30. 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.
  31. "Tobacco Control Playbook". World Health Organization . 2020-04-09. Retrieved 2020-04-09.