Climate Change Denial and the Tobacco/Cancer Cover-up

A few of days ago, I exchanged text messages with a former Sunday school student of mine, who was asking about a barrage of climate change denial arguments he was getting from an auto mechanic he knows. I referred him to the National Academy of Sciences which has excellent resources, all very accessible, and to the Science tab on this website (somewhat less authoritative, I admit).

Academy of Sciences Climate booklet

Academy of Sciences Climate booklet

As an offhand comment, I told him that climate denial was essentially a rerun of the tobacco/cancer cover-up that ended up sacrificing thousands of innocent lives for company profits – but with much more harm at stake this time.

A day later, this week’s issue of Science Magazine arrived, published by the world’s largest scientific academy. In it, an article comparing the current climate denial campaign to the tobacco/cancer fraud of the last century struck me as really worth passing along. Much more has been written about the tobacco/climate nexus, and many of the same scientists, corporate funders and politicians show up in both. But this short article provides a good, succinct summary.

Climate Discussion Echoes Tobacco Debate

In 1962, Luther Terry, the Surgeon General of the Public Health Service, established the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health. On 11 January 1964, he released the committee’s report, “Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General of the United States” (1), which reviewed the existing science and concluded that lung cancer and chronic bronchitis are causally linked to cigarette smoking.

AAAS landmark climate report

AAAS landmark climate report

This landmark report marked a critical pivot in our national response to tobacco products, leading to packet warning labels, restrictions on cigarette advertising, and anti-tobacco campaigns. But it by no means ended the debate about what we now know to be horrifically negative public health impacts of tobacco use. Instead, it galvanized the tobacco companies, through their industry-funded Tobacco Institute, to publish a large number of “white papers” to rebut scientific reports critical of tobacco (2).

The demise of the Tobacco Institute came in 1998, as part of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, where 46 state attorneys general obtained $206 billion dollars over 25 years from the tobacco industry for its culpability in creating a public health crisis (3).

This bit of history has important parallels to our national discussion of climate change. On 18 March, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released a report produced by a panel of 13 prominent experts chaired by the Nobel prize–winning scientist Mario Molina, titled “What We Know: The Reality, Risks and Response to Climate Change”.

As was the case when Luther Terry issued his tobacco report in 1964, no new science is being offered in the climate report. Instead, it presents a brief review of the key relevant scientific conclusions. Just as the 1964 report included discussion of the possibility that tobacco caused cardiovascular disease, the “What We Know” paper speaks to the possibility of abrupt climate change risks. Another important parallel is that the 1964 report was issued under the imprimatur of a highly trusted and authoritative source. AAAS, as the largest general membership society of scientists in the world, holds a similar position of trust.

Yet another important parallel between the AAAS “What We Know” report and the 1964 Surgeon General’s report is the political and social context into which it is launched. As historians Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway depict in their book Merchants of Doubt (4), the tobacco issue created an industry playbook for running misinformation campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific conclusions. As the authors document, the industry misinformation campaign on climate change is in high gear and achieving results: Many Americans think that climate experts still have much disagreement about whether human-caused climate change is happening (5).

Today it’s inconceivable that an American decision-maker would risk the public opprobrium that would result from expressing skepticism that tobacco causes cancer. We believe that it is an obligation of all scientists to hasten the day when the same is true for climate change, where the stakes are even higher.


To download the complete AAAS “What We Know” report, please follow this link.

Also, a recent short film linking the main actors in the tobacco cover-up to the current climate denial is worth a look:


1. L. Terry et al., “Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General of the United States” (U-23 Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Public Health Service Publication No. 1103, 1964).

2. Tobacco Smoke and the Nonsmoker: Scientific Integrity at the Crossroads (Tobacco Institute, Washington, DC, 1986); a/l/wal03e00/Swal03e00.pdf.

3. Master Settlement Agreement (National Association of Attorneys General, 1998).

4. N. Oreskes, E. M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt(Bloomsbury Press, New York, 2010).

5. A. Leiserowitz et al., “Climate change in the American mind: Americans’ global warming beliefs” (Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, 2013); les/Climate-Beliefs-April-2013.pdf.

2 thoughts on “Climate Change Denial and the Tobacco/Cancer Cover-up

  1. Kyle M.S.

    Thanks for this post, John. I just finished reading Climate Cover-Up, an expose on the organized, industry-backed effort to infuse doubt into the public discourse around climate change. The organizers of the campaign were honest about the fact that they couldn’t refute the science–that is settled. The best they could hope for is to convince enough people that the science is still unsettled among scientists. Unfortunately, I’d say they executed the plays learned from the tobacco companies to perfection.

    This is a story that needs to be heard. Keep telling it, friend.


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