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Fifty Years of Alternate Facts

By Dick Bourgeois-Doyle


Digging through personal effects after my mother passed away in 2005, I came upon two bulging plastic bags, sealed and dust-covered. Inside I found old newspapers reporting on famous events including the death of King George VI and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, the first moon landing, and the Watergate affair. Several papers presented dark images and words on the 1963 Kennedy assassination.

I thought about mounting and displaying them as a collection. But they still sit in my basement stored in those old plastic bags, with one exception. I framed this particular clipping and kept it on the wall of my government office for over a decade because it reminded me not so much of history, but of a way of thinking and the need for diligence in my own work.

The newspaper article headlined "Cancer Talk Blown Up, Tobacco Men Say" came from the back pages of one of those papers dominated by assassination coverage, the November 25, 1963 Toronto Telegram. The sub-headline reads "Industry presents Ottawa Brief."

As you might guess from this, the news story reported on a study commissioned by the tobacco industry. The paper disputed the rising concerns of a link between smoking and lung cancer. Claiming to be a scientific analysis, it branded anti-smoking reports and research as "exaggerated, emotional, punitive and unmindful of the facts." The study then duly presented its own alternate version of "the facts" saying that the "general public is unaware of the scientific evidence that contradicts the anti-smoking charges."

Fifty-five years later with the accumulation of unassailable scientific evidence, gains in the persistent fight against cancer, and our knowledge of the impact of second-hand smoke as well as that of cigarette consumption, the irrelevancy, misdirection, and gaslighting assertions of the 1963 tobacco industry report seem sadly funny.

I can think of no better way to make the point than to list the "scientific" study's key findings and its pro-smoking arguments as reported by the Telegram.

  • "Most smokers ... don't get lung cancer, but non-smokers even children sometimes do."
  • "Tobacco workers themselves scored low among the occupations in frequency of lung cancer."
  • "tobacco lowers blood pressure, and like tranquilizers, reduces tension. But frightening publicity is destroying this good effect and producing neurotic smokers."
  • "Medical propagandists are increasing anxiety, which is the real killer of our age."
  • "Lung cancer itself is a diagnostic fad as new techniques for discovering it make it seem more prevalent ..."
  • (there is) "evidence to support the belief that lung cancer deaths are now levelling off, despite increases in tobacco sales."
  • "Lung cancer is not found among Indians and Eskimos, who are heavy smokers."
  • "scientists have repeatedly failed to produce lung cancer in mice with tobacco smoke similar to the way mice bladder cancers can be produced within weeks by some dyes."
  • "I kept mice exposed to cigarette smoke for some months," H.L. Stewart, U.S. government researcher at Washington reports.
  • "lung cancer appears in cows, dogs, sheep and other animals (that don't smoke and are) never exposed to tobacco smoke."
  • "tobacco stains on the face and hands have never given rise to skin cancers."
  • "only one scientist ... has ever found pre-cancerous cell changes in the lungs of smokers who died from causes other than lung cancer."
  • "... the same cell changes ... are also found in the windpipe, but cancer in this area is very rare."
  • "the anti-smoking advocates act as though by stopping smoking lung cancer would cease, but no doctor would take the responsibility of saying this ..."
  • "In respect to circumstantial statistical evidence which links tobacco with heart disease, the brief suggests that the high blood pressure, ambitious, aggressive people prone to heart attacks are also more likely to smoke ... Blaming smoking in these cases is like blaming thunder for the damage done by lightening ..."
  • And "blaming lung cancer on tobacco tended to make people stop looking for other causes."

And on and on it goes faithfully relayed by a respected Canadian daily newspaper with all the seriousness and solemnity of the New England Journal of Medicine. The article is accompanied by a photo flowing with gravitas showing the report surrounded by three of our country's then leading authorities on cigarette smoking: the presidents of Benson and Hedges (Canada) Ltd., Imperial Tobacco Co. of Canada Ltd., and Rothman's of Pall Mall Canada Ltd.

The newspaper story concluded by noting that the tobacco industry had demonstrated its commitment to a scientific approach to the facts by setting aside "$300,000 in the past ten years" for lung cancer research. It added, however, "$100,000 of this money had not been spent" as if it was testimony to a lack of scientific interest in the bogus cancer and smoking issue.

I suppose it is forgivable that a newspaper would dutifully quote from the tobacco industry study given that it was presented at a government-sponsored forum, the Conference on Smoking and Health, called by the then Health Minister Judy Lamarsh. But you might agree that the report begged critical analysis.

I told my government science colleagues that the newspaper clipping on my office wall helped me stay skeptical and humble. But in truth, I kept it there because it made me smile thinking about the naivete of 1960s Canada and believing this was something in the distant past.

After leaving government service this year, I put the framed news story in my basement along with those other papers. It stayed there for about six months.

Recently, however, I pulled it out and placed it on the wall of my den.

Looking at it now cheers me in a different way. The clipping is a reminder that despite the hyper forces of social media and online aggressiveness of the 21st century, there is nothing really new in today's alternate facts, fake information, and psychological manipulation by seeming authority that tries to make us doubt what constitutes real science.

More than this, it gives one hope that, no matter the issue, truth and verifiable scientific facts will eventually prevail.

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