Leading Science Historian and Frequent Plaintiff’s Witness in Tobacco Lawsuits Kicks Off 2014-2015 Stanford Lecture Series

“In 100 years, no one will smoke,” predicts Robert N. Proctor, professor of History of Science at Stanford University and a frequent witness in tobacco-related lawsuits.

This may seem unimaginable, as the influence of cigarette companies remains pervasive. They invented the male shirt pocket, to give smokers a place to hold their packs. More than three-fourths of American films portray people smoking, often cigarettes provided by the tobacco industry.

Cigarette manufacturers have paid millions of dollars for studies that point to other causes for health issues caused by smoking, or demonstrate users’ free will in choosing to smoke. Because the researchers’ ties to tobacco are unknown, their results are accepted in the scientific discourse, creating a “disinformation environment” aimed at confusing and distracting the public.

“We’re in their matrix. It’s hard to think outside of the pack,” Proctor said. Since he first testified against the tobacco industry in 1999, he has taken the stand more than 55 times and participated in over 90 depositions.

Proctor spoke to UM students and community members on Thursday evening as part of the Stanford Distinguished Professor Lecture Series, sponsored by the UM College of Arts & SciencesCenter for the Humanities.

Director Mihoko Suzuki said, “This is a wonderful opportunity for our faculty, students, and the members the greater South Florida community to learn from a distinguished historian of science who has done important work as an expert witness in many trials against the tobacco industry, including the recent trial in Florida that resulted in a $24 billion judgment against the industry.”  

In his 2012 book, Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition, Proctor writes, “The tobacco makers are notorious masters of deception; they know how to manufacture ignorance and rewrite history.”

The statistics are staggering. Cigarettes are the largest preventable cause of death in the world, with 100 million casualties in the twentieth century and one billion expected in the twenty-first. More than six million people per year die from tobacco-related illnesses.

These deaths are a result of the six trillion cigarettes smoked each year; placed end-to-end, they would create a cigarette more than 300 million miles long.

And yet, Proctor notes, about 90% of smokers want to quit. “Cigarettes are not a recreational drug. Most smokers dislike the fact that they smoke and regret having started.” Additionally, 80-90% of smokers are addicted to cigarettes, compared with only about 3% of individuals who use alcohol.

Proctor proposes 10 solutions he calls “relatively obvious,” aimed at preventing tobacco deaths. These include: increasing cigarette taxes; banning cigarette marketing, advertising and promotion; assigning an “R” rating to all films that portray cigarette use; and teaching tobacco prevention “early, graphically, and creatively.”

His “less obvious imperatives” include reducing the nicotine content in cigarettes and ending research sponsored by the tobacco industry at colleges and universities.

The recommendation that “trumps all others,” however, is remarkably simple: “The sale and manufacture of cigarettes must be banned.”

Proctor notes, “The cigarette is the deadliest artifact in the history of human civilization. It is also a defective product. … And it is still, apparently, the only consumer product that kills when used as directed. Half its users, in fact.”

The tides are already beginning to turn. Just last week, CVS announced that its stores will no longer sell tobacco products. Proctor called the news “fantastic” and said he expects other stores to follow suit.

“Why should a health business be selling a dangerous product? Why should they be collaborating with the death industry?” he asked.

“In 100 years, no one will smoke,” Proctor said, adding that he believes China will be the first country to ban the practice, likely within the next decade, due to the “high financial and environmental costs.”

“There is nothing timeless about cigarettes; they had a beginning and will have an end. … I believe that the manufacture and sale of cigarettes will eventually come to an end – and not just for health or event environmental reasons. Cigarettes will be snuffed out because smokers themselves don’t like the fact that they smoke.”

September 11, 2014