Sep. 07, 2012

The 'Secret Documents'

by Robert N. Proctor

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Much of what we know about the internal operations of the tobacco industry comes from documents released in the course of litigation. Documents of this sort have been produced since the first health-based trials against the industry in the 1950s, but the floodgates didn’t really open until the late 1980s, when attorneys for Rose Cipollone forced thousands of formerly secret archives into the open. Whistleblowers such as Merrell Williams, a paralegal working for Brown & Williamson lawyers, would later smuggle out documents revealing a complex history of targeting children, manipulating nicotine, and conspiring to defraud, but this was only the tip of a much larger iceberg.

The industry tried to keep such documents sealed under court order, but as early as 1981 a body of documents subpoenaed by the Federal trade Commission was leaked to the press, including the notorious “doubt is our product” memo from 1969. In 1998, as part of the Master Settlement Agreement with the attorneys general of forty-seven states, the accumulated documents—especially an enormous treasure trove acquired in the discovery phase of Minnesota et al. v. Philip Morris et al.—were released to the public. (The release had been worked out earlier under the terms of a settlement with the state of Minnesota.) the industry was forced to pay for the establishment and maintenance of a website posting these documents, which by the year 2000 consisted of about 44 million pages—and today consists of over 70 million pages, following addition of documents from BAT’s Guildford depository in the United Kingdom.

Now accessible at, the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library is the largest business archive in the world. Most documents are full-text searchable, and searches for terms like “cancer” or “nicotine” turn up hundreds of thousands of documents. Searches for terms like “baseball” or “sports” yield many thousands of hits. Optical character recognition was introduced in 2007, which means you can now search for expressions like “please destroy” or “subjects to be avoided,” with options to order the documents by date or by size; one can limit one’s search to documents from a particular company or a particular year or author or a particular document type (consumer letters, for example). Full-text searchability means you can probe the rhetorical microstructure of the archives; the expression “need more research,” for example, yields 666 documents, and there are hits for terms like “Nazis” and “Negroes” and “zealot.” Some famous public health books are found complete in the industry’s files, so it is possible to search the complete text of, say, Glantz et al.’s Cigarette Papers simply by going to Bates 524540205–0662.

The secret documents have helped spark additional lawsuits against the industry. Computer technology has also helped level the legal playing field to a certain extent: companies with deep pockets used to be able to respond to discovery demands by flooding plaintiffs with unwieldy dumps of documents (known as “papering”), drowning the recipient in paper. That strategy backfired with the rise of the Internet, however, since most of these documents can now be searched by anyone with an Internet connection. The industry built in a clause requiring the documents to disappear after 2012, but Federal Judge Gladys Kessler in 2006 extended the life of these archives to 2021 as part of her ruling in USA v. Philip Morris, where the industry was found to have violated the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.

Historians have only just begun to work through these archives. They should not be regarded as complete, however. Many documents have been destroyed, and many of the most sensitive have been held back on grounds of attorney-client privilege. Hundreds of thousands of documents remain hidden from view, and those that we do possess—though they number in the millions—should be regarded as faint traces of the trail left by the industry. We are truly looking through a very small keyhole into a very large room, but only one of many in the industry’s secret mansions.
Excerpted from Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition Copyright © 2012 by Robert N. Proctor.  Excerpted with permission by University of California Press.
About Robert N. Proctor

Robert N. Proctor is a Professor of the History of Science at Stanford University and author of Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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