Murdoch’s ties to Big Tobacco

Rupert Murdoch’s phone-hacking problems have been all over the news in recent days, but it wasn’t too long ago his media properties were providing a supportive environment for Big Tobacco that went largely unreported.

Tobacco industry ads

Big tobacco ads

Murdoch’s connection to Philip Morris Co. was revealed through secret industry documents made public as a result of the landmark 1998 U.S. tobacco industry settlement.

The 1981 publication of a Japanese study suggesting that non-smoking wives of smoking husbands were more likely than wives of non-smokers to get lung cancer shocked the industry. Big Tobacco realized that second-hand smoke would be the greatest threat it had encountered, more potentially damaging than earlier studies linking smoking with lung cancer, heart disease and other illnesses.

When the victim is the smoker, the industry was able to argue-successfully-that harm caused by smoking was regrettable, but is, after all, a result of personal choice. The individual knows the risks when she smokes. If a person gets cancer even though he doesn’t smoke, but is simply in the presence of smokers, then that is a different matter. Smoking leaps from individual choice to major public policy issue. The industry “calculated bans in work places, aircraft, restaurants and other venues would result in a dramatic plunge in the number of cigarettes smoked,” the South China Morning Post reported after an investigation of industry tactics in Southeast Asia. “People would have less time to puff. And that would lead to billions of dollars in lost revenue.”

To stave off this catastrophe, the industry used every available channel of persuasion and propaganda to cast doubt on the link between second-hand smoke and disease. The channels included supportive media like Murdoch’s News Corp.

A 1985 draft speech for Philip Morris’s CEO for a marketing meeting noted that the media company was already onside. “We plan to build similar relationships to those we now have with Murdoch’s News Limited with other newspaper proprietors,” the memo said. “Murdoch’s papers rarely publish anti-smoking articles these days.”

A second document for the same meeting created two days later asked the question: “how can we change the public’s view towards smoking?” After outlining various strategies to turn back the tide, the memo makes the point that … we are not using our very considerable clout with the media. A number of media proprietors that I have spoken to are sympathetic to our position — Rupert Murdoch and Malcolm Forbes are two good examples. The media like the money they make from our advertisements and they are an ally that we can and should exploit.

In most societies in the world today public opinion is formed, to a significant extent, by the news media and I believe we should make a concerted effort in our principal markets to influence the media to write articles or editorials positive to the industry position on various aspects of the smoking controversy.

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