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Opinion Shaper: Tobaco peddled by conspiring men

By Barry R. Bickmore - | Mar 14, 2015

On March 6, Sony Pictures released the documentary film, “Merchants of Doubt,” based on the book by two respected science historians. Although the film is not being screened in Utah, recordings should be available soon, and I think many Utahns are in a peculiarly good position to be impacted by its message.

The movie documents a disturbing trend, started by the tobacco industry, of manipulating of the political process for addressing environmental and health problems caused by human activities. As the evidence mounted for the harmful health effects of tobacco, and the addictive nature of nicotine, tobacco companies launched a decades-long campaign to stave off government regulation. The strategy was to pay a few scientists, doctors, and public relations professionals to cast doubt on the growing consensus among medical researchers that tobacco is dangerous.

It wasn’t that hard.

Although the public often views science as a tool to generate certain knowledge, the fact is that scientists can never get around a certain amount of uncertainty in their conclusions, so they always have to hold out the possibility that additional information might cause them to rethink things. Therefore, all one has to do to cast doubt in the minds of politicians and the public about a strong scientific consensus is to point out a few inevitable grey areas.

“Doubt is our product,” said one tobacco executive. But if scientific conclusions are always tentative, does that mean we shouldn’t make any decisions based on science? The problem with this approach is that, even if we can never be absolutely certain, there is still a difference between conclusions supported by massive evidence, and those supported by little.

“Merchants of Doubt” does not dismiss all of those involved in this campaign simply as greedy liars. Instead, they show that many of these people actually managed to convince themselves they were doing right. How? As I pointed out, there is an element of truth to their arguments, and beyond that, as the early Christian writer, Tertullian, put it, “What a skillful reasoner seems human wisdom to herself, especially if she fears losing any of her delights!” In other words, arguments promoting one’s self-interest tend to sound much more convincing. Certainly money was a factor, especially for the tobacco executives responsible for maintaining shareholder profits. However, for many it was more about political ideology. Political conservatives and libertarians tend to favor minimal government regulation, so it tends to be fairly easy to convince us that there really isn’t enough evidence that a given health or environmental hazard is so serious it needs to be regulated.

Although conservatives tend to be the most susceptible to such arguments, the “reddest state,” Utah, has usually been an exception with respect to the question of tobacco regulation, for obvious reasons. Namely, Mormons (Latter-day Saints) are the majority in Utah, and they have a health code that, among other things, famously forbids tobacco use. So when their political party line (i.e., it is unclear whether tobacco poses health risks) clearly contradicted their religious beliefs, most conservative Mormons favored the religious perspective.

“Merchants of Doubt” goes on to show that the tobacco industry playbook has been used over and over for a multitude of environmental health and safety issues–everything from acid rain, to the effects of CFCs on the ozone layer, to acid rain, to health hazards of certain flame retardant chemicals, to climate change. It’s the same strategy every time, and what’s more, it’s many of the same people and institutions! Free-market “think-tanks” like the George C. Marshall Institute and the Heartland Institute have been involved in many of the campaigns just mentioned, including tobacco. For them, the evidence is never good enough to warrant regulatory action, no matter what the issue.

My sense is that conservative Mormons in Utah have usually gone with our political party line on these issues, other than tobacco. But I think that our experience with the tobacco wars leaves us in a good position to accept the message of “Merchants of Doubt.” If many of the same people are the ones pushing the same arguments against regulation of current environmental problems like human-caused climate change, as they did in the tobacco wars, why should we expect them to be any more intellectually honest now?

One little-known fact about the Mormon health code is that the first reason given for it has nothing directly to do with health. The revelation says, “In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days…” (Doctrine & Covenants 89:4). For Mormons, it was no big surprise when, as a consequence of various lawsuits, many internal tobacco company documents were made public, and we found out that they did know the science was stacked heavily against them, and they were intentionally marketing to teenagers, who are the most susceptible to nicotine addiction. After all, we believe God told us not to use several common addictive substances because “conspiring men” would turn up to use that against us, for their gain.

Several years of experience with the pretend scientific debate surrounding climate change has convinced me that these “conspiring men” are using the same old tricks to maximize their profits or push their pet ideologies. For some, no amount of evidence and no moral argument will ever be enough, because self-interest is such a powerful reasoner. At a 1996 shareholders meeting, a concerned citizen pointed out to Charles M. Harper, Chairman of RJR Nabisco, that an infant can’t just leave a room filled with second-hand smoke. He replied, “Well, okay. At some point they begin to crawl, okay? And then they begin to walk, and so on.” These are not the kind of people we can trust to be intellectually honest and morally upright.

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