frontlinesmoke in the eye

interview: philip hilts

Q: WHAT ARE THE FAMOUS BROWN & WILLIAMSON DOCUMENTS AND WHY ARE THEY IMPORTANT?


Reporter/correspondent for The New York Times since 1989. He is writing a book on the history of tobacco's legal battles.
Hilts: The documents are things from their internal files - memos from one executive to another, papers from their research labs, from labs that they bought things from, and altogether there are thousands of pages of these things. They talk pretty openly about what they think about nicotine, what they think about addiction, what they think about the hazards of cigarettes and so on, in a way that we'd never before. This is a very frank discussion. So that's the important part. From the time that we realized cigarettes were a problem, that they caused disease and that they might be addictive, until now, there've been a lot of suspicions about what these people knew and what they were doing, and how aware they were of the kind of illness and addiction they were causing. How much did they really know? Well we didn't have a clear idea. Once we got these papers in hand, it became very clear that they knew a lot very early on, that they were deliberately hiding things, and that they were deliberately trying to keep them out of court and so on - at the same time saying these things were not true, saying cigarettes are not addictive, and yet they have their own studies which show how addictive it is and exactly how the addiction works and so on. The same thing with the hazards of cigarette. The mouse painting studies you put tobacco on the skin of a mouse and it causes a tumor, so what, that's just a mouse. Well, they did their own studies the same way. They did all kinds of studies on the hazards of cigarettes and..inhalation of tobacco and so on and found a lot of problems. Well, we never heard about this, but they knew it all early on.

Q: BEFORE CONGRESS, THE HEADS OF THE MAJOR COMPANIES STATED THEY BELIEVED NICOTINE IS NOT ADDICTIVE. HOW DOES THE DOCUMENTATION PROVE THAT INCORRECT OR CORRECT?

Hilts: The documentation from Brown & Williamson, but also from Philip Morris and other companies, shows that they did a great deal of work over many years on how nicotine works in the brain and it was very clear to them that this was habit forming, addictive, that it gave you a buzz in the brain, all over the brain in fact, it's a rather pleasant little high and so on. And this is from 1948, they had studies going back that far on it, up to the present, and they were the first ones to discover the main thing about addiction. You know, you have to feed it to animals and see if it's a reinforcing, will they press a lever to get this stuff, is it that good? They were the first ones to do that, they did it long before scientists in the university. So there's a long trail of what they do, in fact they knew more about nicotine than anybody. And that's in the papers. But, when they come up to the committee, is nicotine addicting? No no no, of course not. It's like Twinkies, it's habit forming that way. But the papers don't agree with that.

Q: WHY DO THEY MAKE THOSE STATEMENTS?

Hilts: They don't have a choice. I mean they've been hiding this for years. It would make them lose case after case in court. They've won all of them so far, 800 and some cases have been to court and they've won every one. Now this evidence is out, it's very likely that they could go into court and lose one now.

Q: AN ARGUMENT WOULD BE THAT THESE ARE JUST VARIOUS REPORTS FROM A DIVERSE GROUP OF LOWLY SCIENTISTS OR WHATEVER....IT DOESN'T MEAN THAT IS THE POSITION THE TOBACCO COMPANY TAKES, IT DOESN'T MEAN THE EXECUTIVES...

KNOW THAT TO BE THE TRUTH.

Hilts: The people who are reporting these things are up and down throughout the research arm of the company, in each case - Philip Morris, Brown & Williamson and so on. They're not lowly people, they're the top researchers. And we have memos showing that they were talking to the executives about these very issues. And of course Jeffrey Wigand says he personally talked to the CEO of Brown & Williamson and said we should be making a safer cigarette. He talked about addiction with him, and the policy was forget about it, we don't want to hear about that. So the policy is different, but within the company I think the attitude and the facts were quite clear. If you have a pile of facts, if you're paying attention you have to say, you have to conclude what the facts show you. But they don't. Legally they can't, they're in a box. They would lose cases if they did.



Q: HOW DID YOU GET THE DOCUMENTS AND WHY DID YOU GET THE DOCUMENTS?

Hilts: I got the documents from someone in government that I didn't know very well who called up and said this is very important stuff, we have to get this out. And couldn't meet at his office, couldn't meet at my office, we went out into the suburbs and he passed them over. From that and from pages that came later we did seven or eight stories fairly quickly, in sequence. It seemed right from the beginning like a big story because what they were saying in the documents. Now as I understand it, the ABC people had these documents earlier but I didn't know about that at the time, so our publication of them was the first. Why ABC didn't go with them is not clear.

Q: WHAT WAS THE ATTITUDE OF THE MEDIA COMPETITION, TO GET ON THE AIR OR TO GET THE STUFF FIRST? WHAT WAS YOUR ATTITUDE ABOUT...

Hilts: No, I didn't have any sense that there was anybody else who had them. I assumed, especially from the kind of conversations I was having that nobody else had them. Tobacco was already a fairly big story, we had been on the front page several times with the hearings of Mr. Waxman and hearings before that, all the surgeon generals and so on. So it was a current story, so this... in the middle of a current story comes this big piece, this pile of documents that tell everything about the period of time. So it was really important, it was obviously important. But I didn't assume anybody else had them, I thought I had them to myself.

Q: HOW HISTORIC WERE THEY?

Hilts: These documents are historic in the sense that they probably are the single most important pieces of paper in the history of tobacco versus public health - partly because of their timing, partly because of what they will mean in court cases, partly because they put everybody onto it...we had more papers after that, we went around and found more stuff, more people started coming out of the woodwork and so on, so it was a pivotal moment. And I think it was probably crucial for the FDA as well. When they saw these things they had been doing an investigation, well what's happening with nicotine, are they really manipulating it and so on. Well, here's a big pile of evidence in their own words by the company executives. So I think it was crucial for Congress, for the FDA, for the history of public health, and the history of the business.

Q: WHEN YOU GOT THE STUFF IN YOUR HANDS, WERE THERE ANY LEGAL CONCERNS, WHAT HAPPENED AT THE NEW YORK TIMES ABOUT THE DECISION TO PRINT THEM?

Hilts: No. Oddly enough there were virtually no legal concerns at the Times. When you do a story like this out of documents, you do have to give them to the lawyers, you know, I mean go over the story with the lawyers and they say okay, this is this and this is that. But it wasn't a big deal. I mean they said almost nothing. The story was solid, it had the documents. So in the beginning it just wasn't a problem, in fact all the way along the lawyers were...at the Times were very supportive. They really wanted to see the stories in the paper.

Q: TELL ME SPECIFICALLY THE THINGS THAT NEEDED TO BE LOOKED AT, THE INJUNCTION SPECIFICALLY, WHY THAT COULD HAVE BEEN A CONCERN.

Hilts: The injunction by the judge in Kentucky said that these papers should not be distributed - they were Brown & Williamson's property and nobody should have them. But it was a local judge and he also seemed to be going beyond the bounds of the First Amendment, so in New York which is where we're published, it didn't really have any force. In Washington, where I was, it didn't have any force, the laws are quite clear the other way, and later on Brown and Williamson lost several of these cases on this injunction. When they tried...they subpoenaed me for example and other news people to come in and say where we got this...the papers and so on, they lost all those cases. And I think it was clear to the lawyers at the Times that they did not have a good case from the beginning. That these were obviously important documents and the First Amendment covered publication of them.

Q: SO WHY DID THE ABC LAWYERS, IN YOUR ESTIMATION, NOT COME UP WITH THE SAME CONCLUSION?

Hilts: I don't know the ABC lawyers. But obviously they're more conservative, more worried than our lawyers. It's also...the entertainment business is very strange that way. Lawyers for the entertainment business are more skittish, are more difficult, and in fact they get involved in the news more, probably more than they should. And I think they did in this case, I think they should have left it alone.

Q: BUT THESE ARE THE LAWYERS FOR THE NEWS ORGANIZATION AT ABC, IT'S NOT AN ENTERTAINMENT ORGANIZATION.

Hilts: I guess that's debatable whether ABC is entertainment or news, whether ABC News is entertainment or news. It's a little too much entertainment still. I mean this goes way back into the history of television, and you can see the lawyers stepping in is still.. is something that doesn't happen very much in newspapers and it happens a lot more in television. And I think that they stepped in too much.

Q: IN THE WHOLE RANGE OF THINGS YOU SAW, ESPECIALLY THE BROWN AND WILLIAMSON DOCUMENTS, DID ANYTHING FOCUS IN REGARDING THE MOST FORCEFUL PROOF?

Hilts: They did experiments in which they gave people various levels of nicotine, and looked to see how they were feeling - whether they were beginning to feel withdrawal, whether they were feeling bad, whether they liked it, whether they... And they took this range and they set their cigarette...the nicotine of cigarettes in the target where they wanted it for how the people felt. I don't know how it gets clearer than that, this is a drug delivery, they're measuring drug delivery here. And that's what these papers showed, that they did that quite systematically. And that was both the Philip Morris papers, and in the ABC suit you can see them doing it in the manufacturing plant, in the papers that came out there - it's very clear that they set the nicotine at a certain level and keep it there and in fact if it drops a little too low they go get barrels full of the stuff and pour it in, make sure it's there.

Q: SPECIFICALLY, THE DOCUMENTATION THAT WAS OUT THERE AT THE TIME THAT THE SETTLEMENT OCCURRED, HOW WOULD THAT HAVE AFFECTED ABC'S CHANCES OF WINNING THAT CASE?

Hilts: I think ABC probably would have won. I think when a jury sits and looks at this evidence both the evidence from Philip Morris that had been out and the evidence from Brown & Williamson that had been out, it made it clear that that was what was on their minds, nicotine is the center of their business and they had all the technical details down, there was no messing around. The other things, the various flavorants and all that, the various kinds of tobacco, they moved those around, but nicotine was not moved around. So it was clearly the center of their business. And I think a jury would see that and would say that's what this is about - cigarette smoking is about nicotine. And that's the heart of the case, the heart of the case was: Do they use it in order to satisfy their smokers, the addiction and the pleasure. And their own documents show that's what they were paying attention to. They may call it taste, but their research shows them looking at the pleasure and looking at the level of addiction - how much do you need.

Q: SO THE BROWN & WILLIAMSON DOCUMENTS--WERE THEY RELEVANT ONLY TO BROWN & WILLIAMSON OR WERE THEY RELEVANT TO THE CIGARETTE INDUSTRY AS A WHOLE, AND WHY?

Hilts: The Brown & Williamson documents were one narrow slice into the life inside the tobacco companies - not just that company but all of the companies because each company had its own research, a whole tower in each of the companies. They were all working separately, they didn't share the information, but they had all duplicated it. So the life in each of the top companies was essentially the same. They were talking the same issues, they had the researchers looking at the same data, they were all doing mouse experiments, they were all doing human experiments. So it was exactly the same, and in fact all of them have done the same thing with their documents - they're all locked up in a vault in Kansas City, you know, millions of pages, you know, from all the different companies. And they would all show essentially the same thing, as we can see, 'cause first we had Brown & Williamson, then we had a whole bunch of Philip Morris documents - they look the same - then we have a whole bunch of documents from American Tobacco Company, they look the same. Each one is a duplicate, in fact, some of the phrases and words are very similar - clearly these people mixed together.

Q: HOW AGGRESSIVE ARE THE TOBACCO COMPANIES IN THEIR ATTEMPTS TO TRY TO PREVENT NEGATIVE MATERIAL COMING OUT. JUST IN GENERAL CAN YOU....COMPARE THEM WITH OTHER INDUSTRIES?

Hilts: Yeah, I've been reporting for about 25 years, a lot of it about health, a lot of it about big companies - I've never encountered anything like the aggression and hostility from the tobacco companies. And I think it's partly because they know what position they're in, they're in a bad position, and because they have a lot of money to push their point of view - in PR, they swarm you with PR people, with paper, in court, every way they can. So there's nothing to compare to it. Maybe the gun lobby is close, but I think tobacco has more money and is more aggressive these days.

Q: IN YOUR REPORTING, HOW DOES THAT RELATE TO YOUR ABILITY TO GET ACCESS TO INFORMATION, TO TELL THE STORY?

Hilts: It's difficult because they certainly shut off access to all their people. I mean the people who wrote these documents, we'd love to sit down with them and say what was on your mind when you were writing this? They won't let us do any of that. So the access is shut off as much as possible. And also when you call Congress, you know, you call people in Congress and ask them about their tobacco votes, they shut down real fast, because that's a source of money for them, for their campaigns, and they need it and use it, so they don't want to talk to you. So you have this problem that they.. it tends to shut doors all around.

Q: SO IN SUMMATION, WHAT KIND OF INDUSTRY IS THIS TO REPORT UPON?

Hilts: It's an extremely difficult story and you're always being hassled. On the other hand, it's a lot of fun because it is such a big story, so interesting, you don't want to give it up - even though they're hassling you, you know the reason is because this is important.

Q: TELL ME WHAT THE LAWYERS TOLD YOU WHEN YOU WENT WITH THESE DOCUMENTS AND SAID THIS IS A GREAT STORY, WE WANT TO RUN THIS.

Hilts: They read through the papers and they looked at the injunction - this was after the first story, now in the first story there was no injunction, the injunction came after the first story, the first story they just looked at the papers and they said this looks solid. After that, they saw the injunction, they said this doesn't work, I mean this is a local judge, it's aimed at everybody, and these are very important papers. This cannot hold up in court, there's no way this holds up.

Q: WAS THERE ANY RESISTANCE AT ALL TO RUNNING THE STORIES?

Hilts: There was no resistance at all from the lawyers. There was resistance from editors. There were a number of editors who did not want to do tobacco stories and who fought virtually every tobacco story.

Q: WHY?

Hilts: It's not clear exactly why, you could ask and the answer they gave you was tobacco is boring because we already know it's hazardous, we already know it's addictive, what else is there to say? This is not news, this is very old stuff. Besides, who wants to tangle with these companies? So you're gonna tangle with the companies over a very boring old story, no. So that's the argument. And they would give that argument over and over again. The other side said this is crucial stuff, how can you not do this? So the argument went on and on. We got a number of stories in the paper. There were some we didn't get in the paper.

Q: FROM WHAT YOU KNOW, WHEN DID ABC GET THEM AND WHY DID THEY GET THEM FIRST?

Hilts: As I understand it now, and I just found out this recently, ABC had the Brown & Williamson papers or a batch of them before I did. They had them just after they did their nicotine piece which was a big deal at the time. Somebody delivered these papers saying hey, here's another piece for you. But the lawyers apparently at ABC shut down and said you can't use these papers and in fact we're gonna confiscate them. We didn't have that kind of problem.

Q: PRINT JOURNALISTS NORMALLY ARE THE ONES WHO GET THE STORIES FIRST...

Hilts: Yeah, it is unusual for T.V. to break a really big story like that. It happens sometimes, but not quite as often. And so it was specially important, and they were first in the subject, they were the ones who got this nicotine piece out before any of the rest of us were into that area which turns out now to be the critical question. So it was very important, and they were, they would be following up on a good piece already. It would have been terrific for them. So it must have been more than disappointing, I mean it must have made them extraordinarily angry to be shut down by the lawyers like that. I don't think, in newspapers reporters would put up with that. It's not clear to me why they did put up with it, why they didn't go public and say their own lawyers were doing this to them.

Q: THAT DAY ONE PIECE ON NICOTINE MANIPULATION. WHY WAS IT IMPORTANT?

Hilts: I think the most crucial part, the reason why the Day One piece was important was because the FDA at this time had its own investigation going, and they had turned and focused on nicotine. Is this a drug, because if it is a drug we can regulate it, the government has a right to regulate it, it says so in the law. So that's what they begin to focus on. This is at the same time that ABC is doing this on their own, coming to the same conclusion. Then, on one weekend, both of them came out - a letter from the FDA saying we could regulate this, and a piece on ABC saying this is the center of the tobacco business, they're manipulating nicotine. So it was crucial. It was the first big story of this two year run of stories.

Q: AND WHAT CAME OUT OF IT?

Hilts: It was important because it gave momentum to the FDA, it gave momentum to other reporters to get interested. More and more people got interested, more and more stories. And it was just kind of a swell coming up. And of course, the tobacco companies were very upset about it, extremely upset about it, in fact they were more upset about the ABC piece than about the FDA - which is kinda backwards because their industry is gonna depend on whether the FDA regulates them. But the ABC piece got them very upset.

Q: SO WHY DID PHILIP MORRIS REACT THE WAY THEY DID? WHY DO YOU THINK SO?

Hilts: I think it would have been extremely damaging for them to leave it alone. 'Course it's extremely damaging to go after ABC as well, but this is their tactic, to hit every nail, don't let anything go by. And this was one of the biggest ones in years, and so they wanted to go get ABC. Win or lose, they had to go out and push them against the wall, because this is their whole approach, aggressive legal approach.

Q: HOW IS HISTORY GOING TO JUDGE THE WAY THE NEW YORK TIMES DEALT WITH THE STORY OF CIGARETTES?

Hilts: Each paper and each network has a different tactic and every one of them has arguments inside. The Times in the beginning did very well, we got a lot of papers out that nobody had out, we broke a lot of stories along the way. But this internal argument kept going on and on, and at a certain point they just sort of shut off and said there's a whole bunch of these stories we're not gonna do anymore, we've had enough, we don't need to keep whacking this story, whacking this industry. And so overall you'd have to say The Times did well in the beginning, but then dropped the ball at a certain point. Other papers...well, ABC and CBS, they screwed up at the beginning. The Brown & Williamson papers should have been on ABC, not in The New York Times, they screwed up. CBS also, they held Wigand off the air for a long time. The Wall Street Journal on the other hand is probably the one that has been most consistent, it has done the tobacco story day by day for years, and done a lot of good stories and has not backed off.

Q: JEFFREY WIGAND...IN THE 60 MINUTES PIECE...WHY IS HIS TESTIMONY ABOUT THE INDUSTRY SO IMPORTANT?

Hilts: Jeffrey Wigand is the highest level defector from the industry we have, and so you go into court or you try to convince people about what we know - you don't want to be showing stacks of documents, you want live people saying I was there and this is what we said. And Jeffrey Wigand is that person, he's the highest level, he was at the top of research. And so what he says is gonna be critical.


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