5.1 Big Tobacco

As we progress through this chapter, we will refer to a common example–a propaganda campaign that spanned most of the twentieth century known as The Tobacco Strategy. Led by Big Tobacco, a group of large companies who sold huge amounts of tobacco products, the impacts of the advertising campaign are still felt today, as people continue to fight tobacco addiction and combat health issues related to its consumption (Wikipedia, 2021; Bates & Rowell, 1999). Big Tobacco’s disinformation campaigns spanned across decades and occurred despite the full knowledge of the health concerns related to tobacco consumption including serious illness and death.

Here’s a little snapshot of what happened: in the 1950s the highly profitable industry faced a series of bad press. It began in December of 1952, when Reader’s Digest published an article titled “Cancer by the Carton.” The negative media attention continued into the following year when a summer issue of Time Magazine featured a study that provided evidence that exposure to cigarette tar produced malignant carcinomas in mice (malignant is something that spreads uncontrollably, carcinoma is another word for cancerous). The article’s headline: “Beyond Any Doubt,” left no room for uncertainty. At the same time, medical professionals were making public statements that were damning to the tobacco industry, saying things like “the male population of the United States will be decimated by cancer of the lung in another fifty years if cigarette smoking increases as it has in the past” (O’Connor & Weatherall, 2019, p. 94).

As the tobacco industry’s profits fell, head executives from the largest tobacco developers held a series of meetings and planned what they called ‘the Tobacco Strategy.’ Their plan was to poke holes in the scientific findings and create doubt in the minds of the population (O’Connor & Weatherall, 2019). They wanted to “create the appearance of uncertainty: to find, fund, and promote research that muddied the waters, made the existing evidence seem less definitive, and gave policy makers and tobacco users just enough coverage to ignore the scientific consensus” (O’Connor & Weatherall, 2019, p. 95). It worked. As the decades progressed Big Tobacco would fund massive amounts of pseudo-science, they would create an enormous catalogue of propaganda, and their profits as well as the cancer and death they caused, would increase steadily until the end of the century. We will see glimpses of this propaganda campaign in this final chapter, and we hope that it will encourage you to always ask questions and think critically.


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Disinformation: Dealing with the Disaster Copyright © 2023 by Saskatchewan Polytechnic is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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