I am a big believer in democracy. What often baffles me though, is why we go through periods of time when a large number of people believe things that aren’t true.
I can appreciate how people might have believed that the world was flat, because until people were able to sail around it, astronomers where the only people with personal experience to dispute what the senses told us. Very few people could actually read and fewer still had access to a telescope.
But science and the personal experiences of sailors soon convinced everyone else that the world was in fact round and orbited around the sun. Those who continued to dispute that fact were ridiculed.
That’s not the case today. Information is widely available. Most people, at least in this country can read. And most people in this country get a basic education that includes mathematics and science. Yet we seem to be living in age when facts are optional and science is relative.
I believe that it has a lot to do with politics and in particular the strategy called the Big Lie.
John Boehner’s quote about the US health system being the best in the world is an example of the Big Lie. It works because those who already agree with his position that Obamacare is ruining the country will accept also accept this lie without question. It also works for those who inherently fear change, because Obamacare is all about change. Finally it works because those who stand to lose money or power as Obamacare rolls out are happy to support the claim that the current system is a better choice.
It didn’t use to be this way though. In the 50’s when the John Birch Society claimed that Eisenhower was a communist agent, the vast majority of the country just laughed. Now when the Tea Party (direct decedents of the Birchers) claimed that Barack Obama was born in Kenya – almost half the Republican Party agreed with them.
This is going to take a couple of posts to work through, but I think the train started to jump the track, in terms of these Big Lies, when tobacco companies realized two things – their products were killing people and if voters found out, they were out of business.
Excerpts from a Stanford study by historian Robert Proctor
Cigarettes are “the deadliest artifact in the history of civilization” – more than bullets, more than atom bombs, more than traffic accidents or wars or heroin addiction combined. They are also among “the most carefully and most craftily devised small objects on the planet.”
“The industry has spent tens of billions designing cigarettes since the 1940s – that’s from the industry’s own documents,” he said.
The cigarette represents the perfect business model. “It costs a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It’s addictive,” says investment guru Warren Buffett. Proctor notes that “by artfully crafting its physical character and chemistry, industry scientists have managed to create an optimally addictive drug delivery device, one that virtually sells itself.”
In 1977 the CEO’s of all of the major tobacco companies met in secret in the UK to “develop a defensive smoking and health strategy, to avoid our countries and/or companies being picked off one by one, with a resultant domino effect.” They created a front organization first called International Committee on Smoking Issues (ICOSI) (renamed the International Tobacco Information Centre, INFOTAB, in 1981), to prevent efforts to reduce smoking. That included not only identifying opposition, but promoting research supporting their position, and rebutting the claims of research opposing their position. This organization, code named Operation Berkshire, continued to operate in secret for twenty years. In 1998 as part of a Master Settlement Agreement between tobacco companies and states attorney generals the activities of this organization came to light.
The plan formed when major tobacco companies met together to form a unified defense against anti-smoking legislation. They agreed that they would not voluntarily make certain concessions about smoking and, if legislation was passed to force them, they would agree to sue. In particular, they decided that they would not concede the point that smoking has adverse health effects and would instead attempt to create controversy, lest they be held legally liable for the deaths of smokers. They also formulated coordinated activities to promote the social acceptability of smoking.
Similar behavior was demonstrated by the top seven biggest U.S. tobacco company CEOs, dubbed the “seven dwarfs”, testifying together before the U.S. Congress during a hearing on the regulation of tobacco products on April 14, 1994, in which they collectively denied, under oath, the addictive nature of nicotine, despite at least one published New York Times report at the time claiming that it has the ability to be more addictive than heroin, cocaine or amphetamines.
Here are some of the strategies described in the documents shared with the courts.
Co-operation between the manufacturers of tobacco and candy cigarettes to effectively promote smoking in children is described by Klein and St Clair. They show that some tobacco companies granted confectioners permission to use cigarette pack designs, tolerated trademark infringement and suppressed research showing the potentially harmful effects of candy cigarettes in promoting smoking to children.
This is the process of creating fake grass roots organizations to suggest that a particular political position has strong support among the people.
As health advocates began winning legislation to raise taxes and increase regulation of smoking in the US, Philip Morris, Burson-Marsteller and other tobacco interests created the National Smokers Alliance (NSA) in 1993. The NSA and other tobacco interests initiated an aggressive public relations campaign from 1994 to 1999 in an effort to exaggerate the appearance of grassroots support for smoker’s rights. According to an article in the Journal of Health Communication, the NSA had mixed success at defeating bills that were damaging revenues of tobacco interests.
A small group of retired cold-war libertarian nuclear physicists pioneered the political use of junk science. They developed their techniques in defense Reagan’s seriously looney Strategic Defense Initiative. Their techniques included demanding equal air-time in the media every time a mainstream physicist or engineer criticized SDI. They also published fear mongering articles in conservative publications suggesting that within 5 years the US would suffer an ICBM nuclear attack. As a result of their success, several including Fredrick Seitz were hired by RJ Reynolds. They perfected their doubt-mongering strategy defending smoking. They insisted that the science was unsettled and therefore that it was always premature for the US government to act to control tobacco use.
As one tobacco company memo noted: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the “body of fact” that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”
“My own view is that in many ways, the tobacco industry invented the kind of special-interest lobbying that has become so characteristic of the late 20th- and earlier 21st-century American politics,” said Allan Brandt, dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
Tobacco companies not only spent boatloads of money supporting politicians. They also sponsored game shows, cartoons, and sports. They hired celebrities, dentists, and doctors to endorse their products.
Altria (Phillip Morris) has spent more money since 1998 lobbying Congress than any other single business. In 1998 the Tobacco industry spent $125M lobbying for the defeat of the McCain Tobacco Control Bill.
The result of this campaign is that the rate of smoking in the US did not start to decline until 1985. It was as high as 45% in 1955. It is now at 19%. 2011 was the first time a majority of people supported banning smoking in public places.
In 2013, tobacco is still the leading cause of preventable death in this country. Tobacco kills more people than AIDS, Alcohol, car accidents, illegal drugs, murders and suicides combines. The 400,000 people who die and the 8.6M more who are ill cost the US $96B in healthcare costs and $97B in lost productivity.
But the tobacco industry was able to continue to produce and sell its products for decades AFTER the Surgeon General’s first report that smoking caused disease. Millions of people died. Several Trillion dollars were spent caring for those whom these companies killed. And they are still killing people today even though, at least in this country, their activities are severely limited.
That’s how effective their strategies have been.
These strategies are part of the reason why the Tea Party and movement conservatism exists today.
Next up, how some of those who learned these skills working for Big Tobacco, used them on behalf of the conservative political movement.