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A Dissenting View of Robert Proctor by a Fellow Anti-Smoking Advocate

Historians/History




Alan Blum, MD, is Professor and Endowed Chair in Family Medicine and Director of the University of Alabama Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society.

For nearly forty years, I have taken a back seat to no one as an enemy of the tobacco industry.  In 1977, at a time when the American Medical Association was still silent on smoking (and accepting research funding from cigarette manufacturers) and the National Cancer Institute’s main effort on smoking was to find a safer cigarette, I founded Doctors Ought to Care (DOC), the first physicians’ anti-smoking organization and the first health group to purchase space in the mass media for anti-tobacco industry advertisements.  One of these ads appeared on the back cover of The Nation in 1986 to announce an essay contest for law students on the question, “Should tobacco industry executives be held criminally liable for the deaths, diseases, and fires that their products cause?”

But I am skeptical of Jon Wiener's hagiography of anti-Big Tobacco Stanford University historian Robert Proctor (“Big Tobacco and the Historians: A Tale of Seduction and Intimidation,” The Nation, March 15).

For one thing, Wiener endorses Proctor's practice of naming names of historians who have accepted money from the tobacco industry.  He disdainfully refers to the $550,000 taken by one such historian.   Yet Wiener seems to regard the $480,000 that Proctor himself admits to having pocketed from plaintiffs' attorneys as if this were an eleemosynary endeavor (If Proctor is so dedicated to the cause of the truth, then why did he not work gratis as I and others have done?).

For another, the awful truth is that plaintiffs' attorneys and public health professionals alike have all but ignored these uncomfortable questions:  What did the health community know about the dangers of smoking?  When did they know it?  And what did they do about it?  Anti-tobacco historians have thus ceded much to the other side.

Imagine my dismay, to cite but one instance, while testifying as an expert plaintiff’s witness (as a historian of the tobacco industry) in a tobacco liability case in Ohio in 2001, to learn from the tobacco industry attorneys that Dr. Alton Ochsner, a crusader against smoking and the tobacco industry since the 1930s, whom I had known personally, and who had served as the second honorary chairman of DOC, had apparently hedged on some of his earlier claims and had written letters in the 1950s seeking funding for his research from the P. Lorillard Tobacco Company.

Even Wiener's example of Proctor's specific claim of racism in tobacco advertising is specious.  The offensive brand names he cites were not those of any of the companies being sued.  And it is now common knowledge that these very tobacco companies were, for better or worse, among the earliest employers of African-Americans at fair wages and were arguably the leading financial benefactor of black organizations like the NAACP and the United Negro College Fund.  To the best of my knowledge, I wrote the first textbook chapter, in the late 1980s, on the targeting of minorities by the tobacco industry and I have been invited to give keynote or plenary addresses at more than a dozen conferences on smoking among African-Americans.  But my message has always been tempered by the fact that for decades leaders of black civic and arts organizations, as well as publishers of African-American magazines and newspapers, abdicated their responsibility (as did the New York Times, for that matter, until 1999), by seldom if ever having rejected such largesse.  I cite examples of those who did turn down such funding and who suffered ostracism as a result.

In spite of having been either the author or subject of hundreds of articles in peer-reviewed journals and the popular press on aspects of the tobacco industry and the anti-smoking movement for more than three decades (as well as the creator of nine museum exhibitions on aspects of tobacco history), I have been contacted by only one historian involved in tobacco litigation:  Jonathan Bean, listed as one of Proctor's gang of 50 in Wiener's article.  Yet Bean was contacting me for the sole purpose of verifying my allegation in medical journal articles and press reports in the 1970s that hospitals had abdicated their responsibility in the fight against smoking and were still selling cigarettes in their gift shops.  Bean correctly surmised that I would not support the hospitals' claim for retroactive compensation from tobacco companies (I am not involved in this litigation).

I have another, personal reason, for being skeptical of Wiener’s laudatory view of Proctor.

In November 1988, to coincide with the First National Conference on Tobacco Use in America, held at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and at which I was the keynote speaker, I debuted an exhibition at the Texas Medical Center Library entitled, “When ‘More Doctors Smoked Camels’:  Health Claims in Cigarette Advertising, 1888-1988.  This exhibition, consisting of more than 80 original, in-context print advertisements, required more than a decade of research plus the expense of acquiring thousands of advertisements long before the availability of this material on the internet.  “When ‘More Doctors Smoked Camels’” was itself based on illustrated slide presentations on the history of cigarette advertising that I had been invited to present at dozens of medical conferences and at nearly every medical school, including Stanford, since 1973. 

The exhibition also drew from an original article I had written on tobacco advertising in the Encyclopedia Britannica Medical and Health Annual 1981 as well as other articles I had authored in various journals, including the Medical Journal of Australia and the New York State Journal of Medicine, where in 1983 and 1985 I had produced the first theme issues at any medical journal devoted to a consideration of the tobacco industry and the world cigarette pandemic.  One of these issues was republished as a book, The CigaretteUnderworld [Lyle Stuart, 1985].

To put my 1988 exhibition into further perspective, at the time there were few medical school faculty members in the U.S. whose career interest involved reducing tobacco use and promotion, much less attacking the tobacco industry.  Such activity did not sit well with deans who were concerned about how it might affect their school’s ability to attract research grant money from the politically vulnerable National Institutes of Health.  It was even suggested at Baylor College of Medicine that I “get into something more socially acceptable, like cocaine.” I was also asked not to use my academic affiliation when castigating the tobacco industry and its allies.

Nonetheless, my exhibition at the Texas Medical Library was extended, and versions of “When ‘More Doctors Smoked Camels’” have since been invited to be on display at more than a dozen other libraries, medical schools, and museums, including the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

Flash forward to 2007 when several colleagues from around the country separately alerted me to a widely publicized exhibition at Stanford's medical library on health claims in cigarette advertising, entitled, "Not a Cough in a Carload:  The Campaign by the Tobacco Industry to Hide the Hazards of Smoking.”  This exhibition, co-produced by Proctor and a non-historian at Stanford who, when contacted, told me he and his wife had acquired the advertisements on eBay over some months and that he had never heard of me, included a significant number of the same advertisements I had selected a generation earlier and added few if any new insights to those in my original exhibition on this exact same topic.

Rediscovering the already discovered is not uncommon when individuals work in slightly different disciplines.  But when I sought a simple acknowledgement by Stanford in Proctor’s exhibition of my own extremely similar exhibition of 20 years earlier, supporting my request with more than 100 pages of documentation, Stanford declined, claiming that exhibitions are not like publications.  Such an acknowledgement should have been a straightforward matter for any historian but not, apparently, in this instance.

In my opinion, the failure of the medical and public health communities to confront the tobacco industry for decades after knowing the damage it was inflicting on society (a point that I made in my exhibition but which Proctor and his colleague did not make in their latter-day exhibition) is the worst American health debacle of the twentieth century.  There are few heroes in this issue, and Robert Proctor --profiting financially from his industry-bashing and at the same time impugning the motives of other historians who interpret things differently -- is definitely not one of them, in spite of Jon Wiener’s biased and incompletely researched efforts in his behalf.

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