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How Big Oil taught Big Tobacco to bend science

The tobacco industry may not have been the first to deny that its products were harmful. Turns out it may have learned the trick from the oil majors.
Derrame de petróleo del BP Deepwater Horizon en el Golfo de México, a 80 kilómetros de la costa de Luisiana. Imagen por Bevil Knapp / EPA

Over the past year, revelations about what the giants of the US petroleum industry knew decades ago about climate change have had a familiar ring to them.

Several observers picked up an echo of the same pattern that forced the American tobacco industry into a multi-billion-dollar court settlement in the 1990s: trying to cast doubt on the risks of the product, and denying publicly the hazards their own scientists told companies about privately.


Turns out there may be a reason for that.

Legal researchers have found stacks of documents they say demonstrate that as people started to worry about the toll cigarettes were taking on smokers, the cigarette makers turned to the same playbook the oil companies had written to head off worries about what the carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels were doing to Earth's atmosphere.

"It shocked us. Not once, but over and over again"

That was a surprise to Carroll Muffett, the head of the Center for International Environmental Law. It wasn't news that the two industries had collaborated, but most people had assumed that the strategy had spread the other way—that Big Tobacco had pioneered the plan, and Big Oil had run with it later.

"It shocked us. Not once, but over and over again," said Muffett, whose researchers have spent four years digging through corporate and university archives to assemble what they're calling the "Smoke and Fumes" papers. "But, in retrospect, it shouldn't have."

Other researchers have pointed to connections between the oil and tobacco industries in the last decade. Gretchen Goldman, lead analyst at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the new documents reinforce those other links, but with a twist.

"This sort of flips it on its head—that it was the oil industry playbook that tobacco took, and they arguably were less good at it than oil," she said.


Muffett's organization has spent four years digging into the oil industry's early research into carbon emissions and climate change. This week saw the release of the third round of documents in the "Smoke and Fumes" project, which outlines what American petroleum companies knew about the dangers of carbon emissions long before climate change became the hot-button issue it is today.

Muffett said the two industries often acted as corporate frenemies, with embattled tobacco executives sometimes expressing jealousy of their petro-colleagues. At other times, they tried to shift responsibility for their products' problems to one another.

"Over and over again we see this mutual finger-pointing that, because it increases uncertainty, redounds to the benefit of both industries," Muffett said.

Tobacco companies like Philip Morris turned in the 1950s to oil giants like Shell and the corporate ancestors of today's Exxon Mobil for help analyzing what was in cigarette smoke and tar, the documents show. Shell and Exxon also designed cigarette filters using petroleum-derived fibers, the documents show. The oil industry was also trying to fend off concerns about air pollution and the use of lead as a gasoline additive, a battle it finally lost in the 1970s.

Related: Meet the 'Rented White Coats' Who Defend Toxic Chemicals

Muffett said that technology-sharing relationship soon led to the industries sharing a PR strategy as well.


"The tobacco industry is the very poster child for a corporate cover-up, the very poster child for a corporate and industrywide conspiracy," he added. "The relevance of these documents is they demonstrate the tobacco industry in turn was looking to and learning from oil."

Maybe, maybe not, said tobacco historian Louis Kyriakoudes, now director of the Albert Gore Research Center at Middle Tennessee State University. For instance, the tobacco industry knew before the 1950s that there were problems with its products, he said.

"This is an exciting line of research, and it's an exciting arrow pointing us in a direction," said Kyriakoudes, who testified in several of the lawsuits against the tobacco industry. But he said the question of who first wrote the playbook is less important than how the plays were run.

"These are common techniques that are being used by two powerful industries, and are continuing to be used by these industries even to this day"

"By the 1950s, it's clear the both have a common origin in terms of strategy, setting a pattern of using science against the truth as opposed to using science to promote the truth," Kyriakoudes said. "These are common techniques that are being used by two powerful industries, and are continuing to be used by these industries even to this day."

The American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry's leading trade association, did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did tobacco giant Philip Morris, whose executives feature prominently in the documents.


But ExxonMobil spokesman Alan Jeffers told VICE News via e-mail, "We reject long-discredited conspiracy theories that attempt to portray legitimate scientific observations and differences on policy approaches as climate denial. We rejected them when they were made a decade ago, and we reject them today."

Prosecutors in at least 17 US states and territories are investigating whether ExxonMobil misled investors about climate change and its potential impact on the company's bottom line. The company now says the risk is "clear and warrants action," but has resisted shareholder efforts to asses just how risky it is.

The first "Smoke and Fumes" installment documented how leading researchers had verified the effects of carbon dioxide and other byproducts of burning oil, gas and coal on the atmosphere by the 1950s; the second, released in May, showed how the industry had explored technologies to reduce emissions in the 1960s—but ultimately decided to raise doubts about the science of climate change instead.

Goldman said the documents suggest that while Exxon "might have been one of the bigger actors" in that strategy, "it wasn't the only actor in it." And as with the tobacco industry, any future court cases could force oil companies to open up their own records.

"To me, what this does is sheds a much brighter light on that deep and long connection between the two industries, and shows it's a little more organized and intentional than at least what I'd seen before," she said.