Photo: Tomasz Sienicki (Wikimedia Commons)

A new analysis of internal documents from tobacco company Philip Morris demonstrates that what the firm said publicly about tobacco dependency differed from what it knew to be true about the science of addiction.

Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco compared previously secret documents from Altria (formerly called Phillip Morris Companies, Inc. and parent of Philip Morris USA) with statements the company made publicly. While Philip Morris publicly claimed that nicotine is the primary driver of smoking addiction, its scientists privately acknowledged that smoking addiction stems from a host of social, psychological, and environmental factors, like seeing a cigarette ad or integrating smoking into a daily routine, according to the paper published today in PLOS Medicine.

“It’s a contradictor we found between their public stance and their private stance until 2006,” study author Jesse Elias told Gizmodo. The latest documents in the report are from 2006.

Tobacco was considered merely a habit in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but later research determined that nicotine was an addictive chemical. More recent research has determined that it’s not all about nicotine, though—the addiction has several non-chemical components that make cigarettes so hard to quit. From the PLOS Medicine paper:

Research demonstrates that social and environmental cues associated with smoking —e.g., seeing an advertisement, seeing an ashtray, drinking a beer, spending time with smoking friends—produce physiological and psychological changes in the user that can trigger substance use and maintain nicotine-seeking behavior, without the administration of nicotine.

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The UCSF researchers found Philip Morris documents from the 1990s doubting whether there was a consensus about the addictiveness of tobacco smoking. But following a landmark 1998 settlement, the company publicly and privately recognized nicotine’s addictiveness. It subsequently began researching and selling “reduced-risk” products, like vapes.

The company later formed an internal group, which during the early 2000s called addiction a “multidimensional” and “complex” behavior, the UCSF researchers report. But the firm’s public image, messaging, and behavior didn’t reflect this.

“They would like us to focus on their shiny new products,” study author Pamela Ling told Gizmodo, “rather than their ongoing efforts to undermine the things that we know work to control the tobacco epidemic,” such as recent lobbying efforts to block anti-smoking policies. Philip Morris did not respond to a Gizmodo request for comment.

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The researchers point out that this is a fragmented selection of the company’s documents only going up to 2006. It’s unclear if internal views have changed at Altria and Philip Morris, or how well it captures Philip Morris’ opinions and strategies overall.

Tobacco use has been on a steady decline in the US. A 2017 CDC report revealed continued decreases in teen smoking, as well as a fall in e-cigarette use (after a few years of rising popularity). Tobacco industry lobby spending also seems to be down, though donations to the Trump administration by tobacco companies have since increased.

Still, the researchers hope to remind public health officials that tobacco addiction is about more than just nicotine, and that there isn’t enough long-term data to show whether “reduced harm products” actually benefit public health. Even Philip Morris recognized this as late as 2006 (the latest document in the data).

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“If the industry was interested in improving public health, there are a couple thousand things they could be doing differently,” like not fighting against anti-smoking laws and not normalizing their “reduced risk” products, Elias said.

[PLOS Medicine]