Oil and Tobacco
New documents reveal oil and tobacco industries’ dirty history of working together
Things keep looking worse and worse for the oil industry.
After documents dating back as far as the 1940s revealed companies coordinated to cover up the industry’s role in climate change, several corporations, including Exxon Mobil, now face a fraud probe and mounting public outrage. Many have said the climate change cover-up rivals that of big tobacco’s decades-long scheme to mislead the public about the health risks of smoking—assertions the oil industry continues to shrug off.
But a new trove of documents compiled and released July 20, 2016, by the Washington-based Center for International Environmental Law, or CIEL, provides further evidence that the comparison to big tobacco is valid and that the two industries have even worked collaboratively for over a half-century.
The documents, according to Carroll Muffett, president of CIEL, show oil and tobacco giants have long shared marketing and advertising strategies, research institutes, PR firms and even scientists.
And contrary to popular belief, Muffett told The Huffington Post, “tobacco companies got their playbook from the oil industry,” not the other way around.
In April, CIEL released documents showing that the oil industry has known about the potential role of fossil fuels in CO2 emissions since at least 1957. They began “shaping science to shape public opinion,” as Muffett put it, even earlier, in the 1940s.
A second round of documents released in May revealed that the industry had the technology to cut CO2 emissions in the 1970s, but instead chose to “invest in research to explain away the climate risks.”
The latest batch, which includes dozens of documents pulled from an archive of some 14 million tobacco industry documents maintained by the University of California at San Francisco, shows that big oil’s strategies “were effective enough that another industry—the global poster child for consumer fraud—took these strategies to carry out its own deception campaign,” according to Muffett.
The cross-pollination was easy to come by.
In June 1957, representatives of tobacco powerhouse Philip Morris visited Shell Oil and Humble Oil (now Exxon Mobil) facilities in Texas to learn more about mass spectrometry, a technology the petroleum industry was using to test for hazardous air pollutants.
“The oil companies, because of their smog research, had developed unique expertise in detecting minute toxins in air quality,” Muffett said.
Of “particular interest” to Philip Morris, the company noted in a subsequent report about its visit, was Shell’s ongoing use of the technology to analyze cigarette tars. Ironically, Shell’s testing was conducted as part of New York University research funded by the tobacco industry.
Muffett said it is just one of many examples of the oil industry testing tobacco products. By the 1960s, the documents show, oil companies, including Shell and Esso, were developing and patenting their own cigarette filters—a discovery Muffett said initially left him “utterly drop-jawed.”
By the late-1970s, according to CIEL, British American Tobacco alone shared board members with three separate petroleum companies.
Beyond the research component, big oil and big tobacco shared a common market as well.
Among the more telling documents is a 1967 report in which the American Tobacco Company proposes a “tie-in” between its own Colony cigarettes and the petroleum industry.
The oil and tobacco “tie-in”
“Success,” the tobacco company wrote, “will depend heavily on the appeal we make to the smoker-driver. And except to say the appeal is not gasoline, we don’t intend to get into the creative requirements here. It is obvious that smoking pleasure and the freedom and leisure of auto travel must be linked successfully if we are to get this program moving.”
The report goes on to explore possible approaches, including establishing a relationship with the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association for America’s oil and natural gas industry, which the tobacco company described as “not an ordinary association” and “highly political.”
Muffett said this particular document highlights both the industries’ mutual interests (including the fact that gas stations have long been key retail outlets for tobacco products) and that big tobacco was constantly looking to oil companies, and API, for guidance.
API and Philip Morris did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
Big tobacco’s fascination with big oil “bordered on paranoia,” Muffett said. And the relationship was, as he put it, not all “lovey dovey.”
Reports and internal documents, CIEL says on a website about the research, “demonstrate that each industry saw in the other a convenient culprit for environmental cancers. Ironically, this mutual finger-pointing not only gave each industry a convenient opportunity to watch and learn from the other’s strategies, it also increased the overall public uncertainty about the causes of cancer and the necessary solutions to the benefit of both industries.”
Muffett told HuffPost the documents compiled by his nonprofit effectively become a precursor to the story in Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, a book that details how “a loose-knit group of high-level scientists, with extensive political connections, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public” about the dangers of tobacco smoke and global warming.
Muffett’s hope is that others will investigate the documents for themselves.
“A core part of the lesson here is that this information is out there, the truth is out there,” he told HuffPost. “And far less of it is under industry control than I think they may have long believed.”
May Boeve, co-founder and executive director of the environmental group 350.org, pointed out that the “last 14 consecutive months have been the hottest on record.”
“We will make sure that Exxon and their industry peers are held accountable for robbing us of a generation’s worth of action on climate,” she added.
Other key findings, as highlighted on CIEL’s website and in a press release, include:
- After learning that Shell was using the Stanford Research Institute for animal experimentation, a Phillip Morris executive wrote that the company should consider hiring SRI for its own research, arguing, “Obviously [Shell] would not employ them if they did not think SRI was reliable.” SRI was later hired by tobacco companies to conduct carbon monoxide testing and “develop discrete, portable cigarette testing kits that could be used without attracting attention.”
- Theodore Sterling, who in 1968 “prepared a report that would prove central to the tobacco industry’s attacks on the emerging scientific consensus around cancer and tobacco,” also had a long history of conducting research for oil companies.
- Many of the scientists who worked for the tobacco industry’s Scientific Advisory Board were recommended by a former Standard Oil executive.
- Oil and tobacco companies teamed up to cosponsor America’s favorite pastime: baseball.
In a statement Wednesday, Muffett said the new documents represent half the story—at best.
“The rest of this story—including vital truths about the history of climate deception—remains hidden in the oil industry’s files,” he said. “Six decades of denial and deception is six too many. We owe it to ourselves, and to future generations, to bring that truth to light.”
—The Huffington Post, July 20, 2016