Smoke and Mirrors: Big Tobacco’s Bad Magic

May 23, 2012  |  Other

Many of us remember our parents placing a hammer in the windowsill of every bedroom to smash out the glass in case of fire. We were taught that smoke rises, drilled about crawling low on the floor to reach the hammer, escaping outside through the hydrangea bushes, and running to a designated spot where the entire family would huddle at a safe distance waiting to hear the first fire truck siren.

Nobody used to say, ‘Where there’s fire, there’s smoke.‘ But early this month, The Chicago Tribune published a wrecking-ball exposé called ‘Playing with Fire,’ laying bare Big Tobacco’s decades-old guise to shift Americans’ focus away from the terror of cigarette-caused house fires and toward the scientific ‘miracle’ of flame-retardants created around 1970 to help protect all forms of life and property from nicotine-sparked incineration.

The Tribune uncovered long-buried details of Big Tobacco’s nefarious ruse after digging through 13 million industry documents ordered available for public scrutiny after a blanket plaintiff settlement. The documents include internal memos, speeches and strategic marketing plans clearly implicating Big Tobacco’s longtime role in purposefully ramping up use of toxic flame retardant chemicals in American furniture manufacturing.

Two generations ago Americans were more terrified of house fires than tornadoes, particularly since evolving statistics showed 95 percent of the victims to be age 5 or younger. Cigarettes were Villain No. 1. It became tantamount for cigarette makers to give the American people something else to be afraid of. Big Tobacco, reeling at the prospect of watching its enormous profit margins go up in a cloud of smoke, instead pulled a tarantula out of the hat: Like the most ingenious stage magicians, industry chiefs concocted and systematically mounted an elaborate deflection campaign, utilizing the same cloud of smoke and a labyrinth of folding mirrors to further confuse the audience’s logic.

Voila! Enter flame retardants invented to prevent couches, cribs, and chairs from sparking and spontaneously combusting. With the promise of effectively helping rid America of house-fire phobia (especially those caused by discarded cigarettes left smoldering), no self-respecting American parent could sleep at night without replacing every piece of old furniture with new improved furniture, chemically doused to render it virtually fireproof.

Brilliant concept. Except not only don’t fire retardant chemicals work, they wick moisture from upholstery and cushions, accelerating flammability. Pernicious chemicals like penta are released into the air, latching onto dust, making it impossible to avoid ingestion. Children are at much greater risk of exposure than adults, because they typically spend so much time playing on the floor. Numerous recent studies have linked retardant chemicals to impaired neurological development and lower IQs.

From the get-go, industry executives realized they had a serious credibility problem; burn victims and firefighters were already pressing for ‘fire-safe’ cigarettes (FSC). Big Tobacco’s cunning machine began a campaign to persuade firefighters and other trusted groups to adopt their cause— focusing the hazard of house fires on untreated furniture rather than discarded cigarettes wasting oxygen.

The industry spent millions of dollars paying insiders, bona fide burn doctors, lascivious courtroom witnesses and slick organizers impersonating as volunteers—all skilled at influencing good people to accept ludicrous information.

‘To give us clout, to give us power, to give us credibility, to give us leverage, to give us access where we don’t ordinarily have access ourselves—those are the kinds of things we’re looking for,’ a Philip Morris executive told his peers in a 1984 training session on this strategy, according to the 4-part Tribune series.

Big Tobacco has never been in favor of ‘fire-safe’ cigarettes (FSC) because they cost more to make; though, formally, executives have insisted smokers won’t buy cigarettes designed to automatically extinguish if they don’t get puffed every few seconds. Over the years, however, many lobbyists have fought for FSC—aligning with firefighters, fire prevention organizations, and other powerful consumer health advocates. The main opponent? Big Tobacco, of course, whose influence has thus far managed to keep FSC from becoming national law. In the meantime, FSC has been constitutional at the state level. As of July 2011 all 50 states require, by 50 separate laws, that all cigarettes be self-extinguishing.

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