Turning free speech into corporate speech: Philip Morris' efforts to influence U.S. and European journalists regarding the U.S. EPA report on secondhand smoke

Monique E. Muggli, Richard D. Hurt, Lee B. Becker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


Background. Previously secret internal tobacco company documents show that the tobacco industry launched an extensive multifaceted effort to influence the scientific debate about the harmful effects of secondhand smoke. Integral to the industry's campaign was an effort to derail the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) risk assessment on environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) by recruiting a network of journalists to generate news articles supporting the industry's position and pushing its public relations messages regarding the ETS issue. Methods. Searches of previously secret internal tobacco industry records were conducted online and at the Minnesota Tobacco Document Depository. In addition, searches on the World Wide Web were conducted for each National Journalism Center alumnus. Lexis-Nexis® was used to locate news stories written by the journalists cited in this paper. Results. Philip Morris turned to its public relations firm Burson Marsteller to "build considerable reasonable doubt ... particularly among consumers" about the "scientific weaknesses" of the EPA report. A Washington, DC, media and political consultant Richard Hines was a key player in carrying out Burson Marsteller's media recommendations of "EPA bashing" for Philip Morris. In March 1993, Philip Morris' vice president of corporate affairs policy and administration reported to Steve Parrish, vice president and general counsel of Philip Morris, that their consultant was "responsible for a number of articles that have appeared in ... major news publications regarding EPA and ETS." In addition to placing favorable stories in the press through its consultant, Philip Morris sought to expand its journalist network by financially supporting a U.S. school of journalism; the National Journalism Center (NJC). Philip Morris gleaned "about 15 years worth of journalists at print and visual media throughout the country ... to get across [its] side of the story" resulting in "numerous pieces consistent with our point of view." The company planned to "design innovative strategies to communicate [its] position on ETS through education programs targeting policy makers and the media" via the NJC. Finally, journalists associated with think tanks that were financially supported by Philip Morris wrote numerous articles critical of the EPA. Conclusions. This is the first report, from the tobacco industry's own documents, to show the extent to which the tobacco industry has gone to influence the print media on the issue of the health effects of secondhand smoke. Unfortunately, what we report here is that even journalists can fall victim to well-orchestrated and presented public relations efforts regardless of their scientific validity. It is not clear how various professional media organizations oversee the ethical conduct of their members. Certainly, on the topic of the health effects of secondhand smoke, more scrutiny is warranted from these organizations for articles written by their members lest the public be misinformed and thus ill served.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)568-580
Number of pages13
JournalPreventive Medicine
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2004


  • EPA
  • Environmental tobacco smoke
  • Journalists
  • Tobacco industry

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Epidemiology
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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