While most of us probably never considered the tobacco industry to be particularly good people, the latest report based on 13 million documents released since a court-ordered legal settlement in 1998 should disturb even the most optimistic of industry supporters.
Scientists at UCLA have examined millions of previously secret internal records from the tobacco industry looking for clues as to how they handled potential health concerns regarding cigarette smoke. From these documents, two previous reports revealed that the presence of the radioactive isotope polonium 210 in tobacco and its associated increase in lung cancer risk from smoking was common knowledge among top industry executives as early as 1964. These reports showed that tobacco companies not only failed to inform consumers of the risk of smoking, but also refused to take action to reduce the radioactive potential.
The latest study, published this week in the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research, uncovered that the tobacco industry had detailed knowledge of the presence of radioactive substances as early as 1959.
According to the report, the authors were “surprised to discover the industry’s scientists had actually made, as early as the 1960s, quantitative and realistic radiobiological calculations of the long-term radiation absorption dose of ionizing alpha particles and reached the conclusion that the alpha particles in cigarette smoke in promoting ‘cancerous growth’ in the lungs of smokers was ‘not an unlikely event’.”
Amazingly, the tobacco industry was also aware of an acid washing process by which the radioactive potential of cigarette smoke could be dramatically reduced. Autopsies from smokers indicate that the majority of tumors occur where the alpha particles accumulate in the lungs. This acid wash technique is effective at removing the radioisotope from tobacco plants, and has the potential to significantly reduce cancer risk.
Though the industry frequently cited cost and environmental concerns for why they did not adopt the technique, the UCLA team found evidence that the industry was primarily worried that the technique would reduce the addictive potential of nicotine.
“The industry was concerned that the acid media would ionize the nicotine, making it more difficult to be absorbed into the brains of smokers and depriving them of that instant nicotine rush that fuels their addiction,” said Hrayr S. Karagueuzian, the first author of the study.
So not only was the industry aware that tobacco causes cancer, they intentionally hid this information from consumers and refused to take steps to reduce the danger because they wanted their customers to remain addicted to their product.
While this raises many frightening questions for consumers of any ingestible product (food industry, I’m looking in your direction), what bothers me most is the uncertainty over who will be held accountable for this crime.
According to the report, polonium 210 is still present in all commercially available domestic and foreign cigarette brands.