The Tobacco Wars


1950s

Three epidemiological studies demonstrate the exponential health risks associated with smoking, leading to the introduction of cigarette filters.

1957 Congressman Blatnick gets filtered out

John Blatnick, a five-term liberal representative from Minnesota–and a devoted smoker–leads the subcommittee on government operations through hearings on the Federal Trade Commission’s oversight of cigarette advertising. Blatnick bristles as the testimony, the first ever presented to federal lawmakers on the relationship of smoking to health, reveals that the new filtered brands use stronger tobaccos, and so yield about as much tar and nicotine as the old unfiltered brands–a fact never noted in the industry’s advertising.

In the aftermath of the hearings, Blatnick introduces a bill in the House to limit the tar and nicotine yields of cigarettes and grant the FTC injunctive powers against deceptive tobacco advertising. So powerful is the tobacco industry, however, that the House not only denies the Blatnick bill a hearing but strips its sponsor of his subcommittee chairmanship and dissolves the subcommittee itself.

1959 Doctors make a deal

Surgeon General Leroy E. Burney, emboldened by the publication in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute of a 30-page article on the health risks of smoking, writes in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “The weight of the evidence at present implicates smoking as the principal etiological factor” in the increased incidence of lung cancer.

Two weeks after the surgeon general’s statement appears in the journal, the AMA shocks Burney by publishing an editorial that insists there are not yet enough facts to “warrant the assumption of an all- or-none authoritative position” on causation.

Observers believe the AMA downplays the smoking issue because it needs allies to fight the implementation of Medicare. Morton Levin, the top New associateYork state health officer, recalls attending an executive session of the AMA’s 1960 convention and hearing a trustee demand the organization remain mute on the smoking issue because “the senators from the tobacco states have threatened to vote against us on Medicare if we take any formal stand whatever–and, gentlemen, we simply cannot have Medicare.”

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