February 18th, 2016


Investigative Journalist

Director, Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, UCSF

President, Union of Concerned Scientists

Former U.S. EPA Administrator; Co-Chair, National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill


Is oil the new tobacco?

In the 1990s, tobacco company documents leaked to the news media proved for the first time that, not only did cigarette makers know their products are addictive and cause cancer, but they had been waging a concerted campaign to cover up the truth and distract the public from the dangers of smoking.

Sound familiar? Recently, the Los Angeles Times and Inside Climate News reported that scientists at Exxon Mobil had studied global warming as far back as the 1970s. At the same time that it was planning a business strategy to take advantage of a warmer world, the company waged a public relations campaign denying that burning fossil fuels was heating the planet.

So how closely does the story of climate denial mirror the story of tobacco denial?

Their methods seem to have been strikingly similar, as Stanton Glantz of UCSF’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education relates. In the 1950’s “they realized that they couldn't really contest the evidence linking cancer and smoking, so they came up with the idea of creating doubt.” In the words of the tobacco companies, Glantz says, “Doubt is our product.”

“Because all they had to do was get people confused about it. And by claiming that the issue wasn't proven, that provided cover for politicians to leave them alone and it helps smokers rationalize their continued smoking.” 

Glantz sees tremendous parallels between the two stories, “in part because a lot of the same people and companies that the tobacco companies hired to create doubt and confusion about the dangers of smoking subsequently went to work for the petrochemical companies to do the same thing.”

Journalist Lowell Bergman, who reported on the tobacco cover-up in the 1990s, also sees parallels – and one major difference. While he spent months cultivating a high-level tobacco insider who would agree to be interviewed, Bergman was surprised to read that the Exxon scientists were much more forthcoming.

“So there's a big change from what was going on in tobacco,” he says. His whistleblower, Brown & Williamson exec Jeffrey Wigand, was a rare find. “There had never been anybody in the tobacco industry –as far as I had researched, other than John DeLorean from General Motors, any former executive who is at a vice presidential level of a major corporation to step forward and actually talk about what they say to each other.”

Last year, the Union of Concerned Scientists published the Climate Deception Dossiers, which reported on the lengths to which the petroleum industry has gone, first to investigate climate change and then to combat public awareness of it. Key to that effort, says UCS President Ken Kimmell, was an aggressive PR campaign and a richly-funded bench of contrarian scientists. All of this, he adds, was made clear in an internal memo from the American Petroleum Institute.

“So there you have it, you have certain knowledge of the risks of climate change. You have the people themselves saying their goal was to create a campaign to sow doubt and the execution of that.

“And that is just the tip of the iceberg,” continues Kimmel. “We now have an investigation by the New York Attorney General and the California Attorney General. My prediction is, a lot more is gonna come out, and this conversation will heat up dramatically over time.”

Bill Reilly, who served as EPA Administrator under the first President Bush, sees yet another correlation between tobacco and oil – which, he says, was unwittingly pointed out by George W. Bush.

“He referred to oil as an “addiction” at one point. How do you deal with an addiction? I'm not aware that we've ever stanched addiction by cutting off supply.

“You’ve really got to go to demand. You’ve got to do the things that change that whole attractiveness of it to someone who's buying.”

At this point, cigarette companies don’t seem too keen to discourage the public from buying their product, or to plow under their tobacco plants for a less harmful crop. But ultimately, Kimmel believes, there is only one future for oil companies: “Transition them to something else.”

“I think it is still possible for major oil companies to make very, very meaningful changes to their business plan; invest in renewable energy, invest in carbon capture and storage, stop the deception and … really start moving towards the types of fuels that cause the least harm while we still need it.

“And in the long run, though, I do believe – and the science tells us this is clear – we have to un-addict ourselves to fossil fuels if we have any hope of meeting the goals that we just agreed to in Paris.”


Related Links:

Reader’s Digest: Cancer by the Carton (1952)

Union of Concerned Scientists: The Climate Deception Dossiers

University of California Press: The Cigarette Papers

Merchants of Doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming (Naomi Oreskes)


Written by: Anny Celsi
Photography by: Sonya Abrams