FORT LAUDERDALE – A tobacco industry researcher called as a plaintiff witness in a lawsuit accusing Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds of causing a woman’s lung cancer described an alleged conspiracy of cigarette-makers to deny the truth including a 1950s confidential statement from a tobacco official that read, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could produce a cancer-free cigarette?”
Dr. Kenneth Cummings, a professor at the Hollings Center Cancer Prevention Institute at the Medical University of South Carolina (Charleston) on April 4 outlined what he maintained was an elaborate conspiracy among cigarette makers to defraud the public about the dangers of smoking that lasted for decades.
“Have you come to an opinion that Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds formed an agreement to conceal the health effects and addictive nature of cigarettes from the public and health authorities?” asked Eric Rosen, plaintiff attorney for the Kelley/Uustal law firm.
“Yes,” Cummings said.
“What is your opinion?”
“They did,” Cummings said.
The trial in the 17th Judicial Circuit of Florida Court is being streamed live courtesy of Courtroom View Network.
Karla Zingaro and her husband Robert are suing Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds for allegedly causing her lung cancer, emphysema and related health problems because of the addictive nature of cigarettes. The woman smoked for 40 years, at times up to three packs per day.
Defense attorneys contended Zingaro knew cigarette smoking was dangerous and although she was urged to stop by friends and relatives, ignored the warnings because she found smoking pleasurable and relaxing. The attorneys for the cigarette companies said Zingaro's personal choices absolved the companies of responsibility.
During questioning Rosen asked what percentage of regular daily smokers smoking 20 to 40 cigarettes a day are addicted to nicotine.
Cummings answered, “100 percent. Nicotine is the drug that causes the dependency.”
Cummings was asked to explain the link between cigarette addiction and disease.
“The persistent daily use that leads to day in and day out exposure,” he said. “The thousands of chemicals in cigarette smoke in a dose-dependent relationship; the greater the exposure the greater the risk.”
Cummings said a formalized agreement by the tobacco companies to work together to deny the dangers of cigarette smoking took place after a meeting of tobacco company officials in 1953 held at New York's Plaza Hotel.
“Sales of cigarettes had dipped and they [tobacco officials] viewed it as a crisis,” Cummings said. “They hired a public relations firm and formed the Council for the Tobacco Industry Research Committee. They told the public they would do research [on smoking] and provide factual information.”
Instead, the effort was an attempt to keep the truth from the public, Cummings noted.
Cummings said prior to the New York meeting, cigarette-makers had not met because they viewed each other as competitors.
“This [Plaza Hotel meeting] was really the beginning of the conspiracy,” he added.
Cummings outlined some of the history of cigarette-making including the development of a rolling machine in 1881 that made the mass production of cigarettes possible at cheaper prices. Prior to this cigarettes had to be rolled by hand.
Cummings said that in 1900 there were fewer than 200 cases of lung cancer in the U.S.
“It was a rare disease,” he said.
Cummings said cigarette-makers knew from the 1950s there were harmful carcinogens in cigarette smoke. In 1953 a researcher named Claud Teague who worked in the research and development arm for R.J. Reynolds in product development did an early review of the possible link between smoking and lung cancer. His findings confirmed a likely link between the two.
“Did he inform management?” Rosen asked.
“Yes,” Cummings said.
“Teague was told the report was not for publication, and a lawyer advised him to destroy the findings,” Cummings said.
Cummings added that it was not until the 1990s that the Teague report saw the light of day.
He said cigarette-makers had reassured the public in the 1950s and beyond they would fix or remove harmful chemicals if any were found, but they continued to lie about the dangers of smoking until 2000 [when] they were pressured by court litigation.
“The jig was up,” Cummings said.
Cummings said he had collected 700 television advertisements featuring cigarettes from commercials made during the 1950s and '60s and that 80 television shows had been sponsored during this time by cigarette-makers. In addition popular movie and TV stars were seen smoking to glamorize the practice.
He said in the 1970s when cigarette ads on TV were withdrawn because of health concerns, the industry paid moviemakers to feature their cigarettes in films, called “product placement.”
Print advertising featured doctors and nurses seen smoking in hospitals.
“Did the cigarette companies design cigarettes to sustain addiction?” Rosen asked.
“Based on my research of internal records the cigarette-makers understood the (nicotine) threshold to sustain addiction and kept it above that threshold,” Cummings said.
He was asked the rate of death caused by smoking as related to other causes.
“More will die from smoking than from [car] accidents, drug abuse, fires and alcohol combined,” he said.
He was asked what percent of smokers would die who regularly smoked as tobacco companies intended.
“One out of two,” Cummings said.
Rosen played for the jury a filmed interview in 1976 in which Helmut Wakeham, a research and development officer for Philip Morris, was asked if smoking were harmful. He said he didn't know, but if it was thought smoking was harmful, the company would fix the problem. He observed that people who eat sugar eventually die and people who smoke eventually die.
"We're a moralistic company," Wakeham said.