Lessons Learned: Looking Back to Go Forward
A series of articles exploring historical events that provide an important lesson for ensuring a more sustainable and healthy environment. Originally published as a bulletin feature for the newsletter of CHE-WA (Collaborative on Health and the Environment, Washington State chapter); produced by Steven G. Gilbert.
"Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the mind of the general public.” - an executive at Brown & Williamson owned by R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, 1969 (from Doubt Is Their Product by David Michaels, also quoted in Scientific American, June 15, 2005)
Nicotine is one of the most potent, toxic, and readily available drugs today. The history of tobacco use dates back over two millennia; its psychoactive and medicinal properties were discovered by indigenous peoples of the Americas, who considered tobacco sacred and divinely inspired and used it ceremonially. Nicotine is also a potent natural insecticide. Many millions of pounds were produced and used in the 1940s and 1950s before extensive synthetic pesticides were developed.
On April 1, 1970 President Richard Nixon signed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act into law. The Act required surgeon general's warnings on tobacco products and banned cigarette advertisements on American television and radio beginning January 1, 1971. However, scientific data on the hazards of tobacco use had been available since the early 1900s, and some states restricted tobacco sales to minors as early as 1890. On March 21, 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the US Food and Drug Administration lacked the authority to regulate tobacco. On June 22, 2009, President Obama signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, landmark legislation that gives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate the manufacturing and marketing of tobacco.
It took decades to begin the regulation of an industry that purposefully marketed a deadly product to children. When scientific information is available, action must be taken to protect public health even when some people will focus on the uncertainty, often for the sake of profit.