The Future

Big Tobacco knew way more about addiction than it let on

Internal documents from Philip Morris reveal scientific knowledge that’s been used to get teens hooked on nicotine.

The Future

poisoning teens

The Future

Big Tobacco knew way more about addiction than it let on

Internal documents from Philip Morris reveal scientific knowledge that’s been used to get teens hooked on nicotine.

It’s no coincidence that young vapers are more common than adult ones. The largest tobacco corporation in the world misled the public by oversimplifying the causes of addiction for more than a decade, according to a Stanford analysis published in PLOS Medicine today.

The now-public documents of Philip Morris—which owns six multi-billion dollar cigarette brands, including Marlboro and Long Beach—date up to 2006, and reveal that the company had private knowledge about nicotine’s incomplete role in addiction, directly contradicting its public stance since the 1990s.

Publicly, Philip Morris has been willing to admit that cigarettes are addictive since 1998—but would only cop to the role of nicotine in forming an addiction. Yet privately, the company knew that social, psychological, and environmental factors are also central to addiction and how difficult it is to quit smoking. In other words, addiction was never just about nicotine, and Philip Morris knew it.

The public is generally aware of the tobacco industry’s run-of-the-mill propaganda tactics: social branding in movies, or attractive packaging (which Philip Morris has vehemently lobbied against). And since the 2000s, Philip Morris has been heavily marketing “low nicotine” products like e-cigarettes. According to Pamela Ling, who co-authored the paper, Philip Morris’s idea was that if nicotine is the only cause of addiction, then people should accept low-nicotine products as a tool to fight addiction.

“The [tobacco] industry’s current embrace of nicotine means that they would love us to think that the ideal solution is new products,” Ling said in a phone call with The Outline.

When the solution to addiction is addictive products, there are tangible consequences—for children and young people more than adults. More than 2 million middle schoolers and high schoolers in the U.S. smoke e-cigarettes, and 40 percent of them weren’t prior cigarette smokers. E-cigarettes are a gateway product for nicotine addiction, and Philip Morris has always known it.

The problem doesn’t end with Philip Morris. Even though the FDA doesn’t consider them a “medical device,” the CDC describes e-cigarettes on its website as a tool than can help wean smokers off cigarettes. According to paper co-author Jesse Elias, this isn’t exactly a strong public stance.

“The tobacco industry lied for so long about nicotine being addictive that it’s well ingrained in the public imagination that nicotine is addictive,” Elias said in a phone call. “Public health can do a better job at communicating all of these other industry activities that also drive addiction that the industry has never admitted to and has never willingly confronted.”

The issues with e-cigarettes don’t end with young people. Since e-cigarette devices are very expensive, promoting these products as a solution to cigarette addiction makes it disproportionately more difficult for economically disadvantaged people to quit. Yogi Hendlin, who co-authored the paper, said in a phone call with The Outline that this is a huge social justice problem.

“We know that homeless people smoke at a higher rate than any other group. People with schizophrenia smoke at very high rates. These are generally people who can’t afford these expensive, 50 dollar-plus devices,” Hendlin said. “What we need to do to help these populations is targeted public health interventions, and not just get them addicted to another product.”

Big Tobacco propaganda didn’t end when companies like Philip Morris admitted that cigarettes are addictive and harmful to human health—a decision widely regarded as a desperate public relations move. It didn’t end when they stopped explicitly marketing to children in movies, changed their company name to “Altria,” or conducted a half-assed ad campaign to try and clean up their image.

The most recent of the released documents was dated to 2006. Since then, Philip Morris has lobbied for e-cigarettes to be considered medical devices, and lobbied in favor of attractive packing. And the company website still doesn’t speak to the incomplete role that nicotine plays in addiction, or the environmental factors that make e-cigarettes attractive to middle schoolers, despite the fact that they’ve known for decades.

Now, a new generation is hooked on nicotine.

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