Witness for plaintiff alleges cigarette companies hid from their own research

By John Sammon | Apr 11, 2019

MIAMI – A professor of the history and science of smoking told a jury April 10 in a trial accusing Philip Morris of causing a man’s death that cigarette-makers ignored their own internal findings to deny the dangers of smoking.

“Did they [cigarette companies] make speeches and promises that smoking was not injurious to health?” asked plaintiff attorney Alex Alvarez.

“All the time,” said Robert Proctor, a professor at Stanford University.         

“At the time were they [cigarette-makers] studying carcinogens in smoke?” Alvarez asked.

“They were,” Proctor answered.

Proctor said cigarette-makers did their own secret experiments in the 1950s to see if cigarettes were causing cancer, but denied the suspicions, which were never made available to the public. Only litigation in the 1990s forced the secret documents to come to light, the plaintiff's attorneys maintained.

The trial in Miami-Dade County Court is being streamed live courtesy of Courtroom View Network.

Harry Olsen, the plaintiff, smoked up to two packs of cigarettes a day for more than 40 years. He developed cardiovascular problems and coronary artery damage and suffered a major stroke in the 1980s that left him partially paralyzed and wheelchair-bound. He died in 2006.

The lawsuit brought against Philip Morris by Olsen’s estate alleges nicotine addiction caused Olsen’s premature death and that cigarette-makers were liable because they deliberately sought to hide the truth, marketing what they knew to be a defective and dangerous product to make profits.

Proctor said that in the 1950s, tobacco company R.J. Reynolds had its own research and development arm and tasked research and development director Claude Teague to find out if cigarettes were causing cancer and, if so, how to fix it.

Despite Teague’s documented suspicions there was a link between smoking and lung cancer, Proctor said the cigarette-makers denied and stonewalled the findings.

Attorneys for Olsen's estate contend the effort to suppress the truth became a conspiracy when the heads of tobacco companies, who beforehand had no dealings with each other as competitors, met at the Plaza Hotel in New York in 1953 to coordinate efforts to combat the growing body of evidence that cigarette smoking was hazardous to health.

Proctor added there was a history of deceptive advertising by the cigarette companies in television and print, particularly during the 1950s. One advertisement for Philip Morris stated, “When you change to Philip Morris you’ll feel better; your food will taste better too.”

Another stated, “Something wonderful happens [when smoking].”

Television ads of the 1950s run by Philip Morris were played for the jury. One portrayed how to properly inhale cigarette smoke deeply to get the most pleasure and how to exhale it out the nose.

Proctor said famous athletes including Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron all appeared in cigarette ads as well as film and TV personalities such as John Wayne and Bob Hope.

“Did the cigarette companies sponsor entire TV shows?” Alvarez asked.

“They did,” Proctor said.                     

Print ads targeted younger smokers, and Proctor said Marlboro, originally a cigarette for women, was sold as a man’s cigarette by the 1960s, featuring a rugged-looking television cowboy as its figurehead.

Another television cigarette icon was Johnny Roventini, a diminutive 4-foot New York hotel bellboy. He was discovered by cigarette-makers and became nationally famous on cigarette TV ads shouting out, “Call for Philip Morris.”

“The character became such an icon that 10 other Johnnies were franchised, all of them 4 feet tall,” Proctor said.

He said print advertising of the day also featured pictures of babies. In one, a baby is portrayed saying, “Gee Mommy, you sure enjoy your Marlboros.”

In an early poll conducted in the 1950s, more than 4,000 people were questioned about problems with cigarettes, but only one said they may be a cause of cancer while another said he thought they caused bad teeth, Proctor testified.

Proctor said cigarette smoke contains hundreds of chemical compounds, including nicotine, butane, radon, methane, ammonia, arsenic and others.

“There are 70 known cancer causing chemicals in it,” he said.

Judge Jose Rodriguez of the 11th Judicial Circuit is presiding in the case.

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