Select Committee on Health Second Report


THE TOBACCO INDUSTRY AND THE HEALTH RISKS OF SMOKING

The TMA and the Harrogate Research facility

49. The memorandum from the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association outlines the research conducted by, or on behalf of, the industry.[103] It notes that in 1954, following the announcement by the Minister of Health referred to above,[104] the tobacco companies funded a research grant of £250,000 to the Medical Research Council (MRC) to enable further investigation into smoking and health issues. The companies did not control the projects selected by the MRC for funding. The Tobacco Manufacturers' Standing Committee (TMSC), established in 1956, had no control and attached "no strings" to the grantees of the MRC controlled money. In 1959 it decided to implement research which it could direct itself and opened a purpose-built laboratory in Harrogate in September 1962. The TMA's evidence states that "the programme was concerned to investigate which, if any, properties of tobacco products might be responsible for the reported health risks associated with smoking, and how the products might be modified to reduce such risks". The Tobacco Research Council (TRC) succeeded the TMSC in 1963 to reflect the fact that the TMSC had decided "to conduct its own smoking and health research programme".[105] The core activity of the TRC, conducted at Harrogate, was to "obtain as much information as possible about the chemical nature of smoke" by means of a mouse skin-painting programme to measure "biological activity" in mouse skin caused by cigarette smoke condensate.[106] By 1969 "the major part of the TRC's research effort at Harrogate was concerned with the search for compounds in cigarette smoke with potential biological activity by fractionating the whole smoke and cigarette smoke" [ie breaking it down into its constituent parts]. The research was abandoned in 1970; the published review of activities noted: "this work ... has been taken as far as it profitably can."[107]

50. Some observers have been cynical about the industry's motives in conducting research: the BMA's memorandum states that "In public, the industry maintained that the primary aim of this research was to help resolve the 'controversy' surrounding tobacco and health. In private, however, the industry-sponsored research was directed with an eye to reducing the likelihood of future liability actions".[108] A question that we believe should be considered is why the companies abandoned their strategy of joint research aimed at reducing or eliminating carcinogens from tobacco smoke. BAT emphasised in its analysis that the purpose of Harrogate was not to establish whether tobacco condensate could produce cancer in animal test models, a fact already "amply reported" in the scientific literature, but to identify "the chemical constituents of tobacco smoke primarily responsible for the mouse skin tumorigenicity and to investigate cigarette design modifications which might reduce the specific tumorigenicity".[109] According to the published reports of the TRC the Harrogate scientists got as far as determining that the carcinogens could be concentrated into "a single fraction representing only 0.2% by weight of the condensate".[110]

51. The companies agree that the task was abandoned when it became obvious that cigarette smoke was too complex to analyse sufficiently precisely so as to be able to eliminate specific carcinogens. Gallaher commented that in 1957 cigarette smoke was identified as containing "some twenty constituents or groups of constituents"; as analytical techniques improved "more than three thousand five hundred constituents have been identified".[111] A slightly different emphasis on what occurred at Harrogate was taken by Mr Martyn Day who has enjoyed unique access to the companies' documents:

    "It is very clear that the industry originally in the fifties and sixties thought there was something that they could do. They thought that they could extract the carcinogen to make the tobacco harmless and they should be doing that ostensibly. But as time wore on and they looked at more and more possibilities, it became clear that that was not the case, that there was nothing, apart from getting a totally new substance, that could make smoking harmless. As was said by Imperial, all that happened with this research was that the health community used the material ... and they felt that this was simply being used against them."[112]

Mr Day suggested that, from his memory of internal documents, Imperial and Philip Morris "were very clear that they wanted this research organization closed down ... it was producing research that was always being leaked by their opponents".[113] He told us that by the mid 1970s the companies felt that "harmony" had been reached: the severe regulatory pressures that they had feared once the true hazards of smoking had become apparent had not materialized and the companies felt "they could live within the confines of any regulator's line".[114]

52. We wanted to pursue with the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association (TMA) the extent to which the TRC had in fact succeeded in identifying any carcinogens in tobacco smoke. Mr David Swan, Chief Executive of the TMA, however, was unable to help us "interpret the history".[115] In its memorandum the TMA pointed out that "No-one who was involved in the joint industry research programme is employed by the TMA. The TMA is therefore not able to offer any first-hand knowledge of the matters discussed".[116] Nevertheless, a substantial section of the memorandum is taken up by an account of the activity of the TRC, the TMA's predecessor body. We find it inherently unsatisfactory that the trade association of the tobacco companies was unable to comment on the research activities of its predecessor body. It seems to us that this is symptomatic of a more general failure by the industry as a whole to take responsibility for the effect of its activities.

53. We also find extremely unconvincing the explanation that the Harrogate research stopped simply because analytical techniques improved to such an extent that researchers were able to analyse ever-smaller components. In the 28 years that have passed since the laboratories have closed it would, in our view, have been perfectly possible for the tobacco companies, with all the resources at their disposal, to analyse the carcinogens in tobacco smoke and develop technology to make their product safer. Much more plausible, to us, is the explanation that the companies realized that they would not, ultimately, face severe regulatory pressures and could afford to wind down health-related research.

Conclusions

54. In analysing the past and present record of the tobacco industry's response to the health risks of smoking we have observed a pattern. It seems to us that the companies have sought to undermine the scientific consensus until such time as that position appears ridiculous. So the companies now generally accept that smoking is dangerous (but put forward distracting arguments to suggest that epidemiology is not an exact science, so that the figures for those killed by tobacco may be exaggerated); are equivocal about nicotine's addictiveness; and are still attempting to undermine the argument that passive smoking is dangerous. The current exceptions to this - based on the evidence they gave us - are firstly Philip Morris who claim no longer to comment on these issues except to protect themselves in law and secondly Imperial who claim not to know whether smoking is dangerous or nicotine addictive.

55. There is some evidence that, as far as the public is concerned, what the companies actually say no longer matters. The Consumers' Association surveyed attitudes to smoking and found that "mistrust of tobacco companies is high". Some 56% of respondents agreed with the statement "I don't trust tobacco companies" whilst only 16% disagreed with it.[117] Tobacco companies are commercial enterprises whose imperatives have nothing in common with the public health community. Their past records of denial and obfuscation militate against any claims they may make towards scientific objectivity. We find ourselves most strongly agreeing with the viewpoint expressed by Dr Axel Gietz, Vice President of R J Reynolds Tobacco (UK) Limited: "we are aware that we do produce and market a very controversial product ... what we do in terms of product development ... is much more important than anything we say".[118] We believe it is for public health authorities to measure the risks of smoking and to set appropriate regulatory parameters.



103   Ev., pp.269-72. Back

104   Ev., p.269. Back

105   Ev., p.270. Back

106   Ev., p.271. Back

107   Ev., p.271. Back

108   Ev., p.110. Back

109   Ev., p.136. Back

110   Ev., p.137. Back

111   Ev., p.174. Back

112   Q1215. Back

113   Q1217. Back

114   Q1215. Back

115   Q666. Back

116   Ev., p.268. Back

117   Ev., p.509. Back

118   Q400. Back


 
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