In a fascinating post on Weekend Stubble yesterday, Paul Collins relays the news that Philip Morris “covertly fund[ed] a global-warming denial campaign,” as if encouraging young people to addict themselves to tobacco weren’t bad enough. Paul’s source was an NPR interview with George Monbiot, an Oxford University professor who reports in a new book, Heat, that the tobacco company hired a public relations firm in the early 1990s to gin up a purportedly grass-roots organization to attack science it didn’t like. The group went on to attack the evidence on global warming, as well as that on secondhand smoke.
The name of the fake grass-roots organization (the term of art is Astro-turf) was the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition. When the NPR interviewer asked for the evidence that Philip Morris was behind it, Monbiot explained that his proof was in the cigarette maker’s own strategy documents. “The great thing about one of the big lawsuits against the tobacco companies is that one of the outcomes was to force the companies to put their archives on public record,” he said, adding “There’s a document which says we should launch this away from the big media outlets because they’re quite likely to smell a rat, whereas elsewhere, where journalists seem to be more naive.”
Since one of my hobbies is wasting time trolling through historical archives digitized on the Internet, I thought I would see if I could find this particular document in the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, an online, searchable archive of documents that Philip Morris, Lorillard, Brown & Williamson, R J Reynolds, and others were forced to release. It turns out that it’s pretty easy to find it, once you figure out to search by the Astro-turf group’s acronym, TASSC. I’m guessing that Monbiot was referring to the “Proposed Plan for the Public Launching of the TASSC [The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition],” dated 30 September 1993, which on page 2 deprecates a launching through “top media markets” and prefers an approach that “Avoids cynical reporters from major media” in order to arrange for “less reviewing/challenging of TASSC messages.”
The fee for a 20-city launch was $60,000, as you may read on page 8 of the memo, though Philip Morris was given the option of economizing: a 10-city launch would only cost $35,000. As the letterhead reveals, the PR firm that created TASSC for Philip Morris was APCO Associates. They seem to be in business still; according to their website, it is part of their “Culture and Values” to “Tell the truth.” No doubt. At any rate, if you narrow your search by adding the keyword “APCO” to the keyword “TASSC,” APCO’s role emerges rather clearly. Here’s a memo from the embryonic stage, when further gestation was costing Philip Morris $25,000 a month, plus $15,000 a month for media relations and $12,500 a month for assisting the tobacco company’s regional directors. By February 1994, APCO was asking Philip Morris for $632,500 for TASSC for the year, somewhat more than the $500,000 the tobacco company had budgeted. In fact, every time TASSC coughs, APCO bills Philip Morris, and so it’s particularly amusing when Philip Morris flirts with hiring a rival PR firm, Burson Marsteller, to handle TASSC’s expansion into Europe. Suddenly and testily, APCO informs Philip Morris that TASSC is an independent organization, full of headstrong, high-integrity scientific minds, and APCO cannot guarantee that TASSC will cooperate.
In the end, APCO and Burson Marsteller both worked on the European expansion. On 25 March 1994, APCO wrote to Philip Morris about the proposed European Astro-turfing and suggested that the new group would be “positioned in a credible manner” if it also took on other public debates on science. “Global warming” is at the top of the list.
It’s only because of the court cases that we know any of this. In July 1994, an internal memo at Philip Morris suggested that the proper answer to the question “Isn’t it true that Philip Morris created TASSC to act as a front group for it?” is “No, not at all.” Reporters who figure out that APCO is the tobacco company’s procurer are to be told, “You’ll have to ask TASSC why they are working with APCO.”