The fact that the Fraser Institute solicited money from large tobacco corporations in exchange for peddling anti-scientific flimflam about the healthfulness of secondhand smoke is actually established knowledge now; that news broke in 2009. However, I’m returning to it for several reasons. First, as you read this, I’m out of town and my WordPress is merrily publishing a backlog of non-time-sensitive material on my behalf (I will try to check comments regularly). Second, the issue of the Fraser Institute’s funding remains a mystery that must be solved. It is Sixth Estate’s belief that all media organizations (including this one) should provide full disclosure of where they get their money from, especially ones that claim to be “independent.”
Finally, it’s worth bringing up because not all of the documents have been properly explored yet. The Fraser Institute continues to publish papers opposing tobacco taxes, something the tobacco industry may or may not still be paying them for. And we’d be naive to think that if they did this with tobacco companies, they wouldn’t do them with various other sectors that benefit from their work, including the oil and gas sector.
Millions of pages of incriminating documents from the tobacco industry are now available online thanks to the legacy left by decades of massive lawsuits. What may surprise some Canadians are the connections to the Canadian think tank sector. For instance, the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library at the University of California, San Francisco, lists no less than 209 documents involving the Fraser Institute.
The documents reveal that the Fraser Institute was receiving significant support from the tobacco industry by the late 1990s. At the time they held a pair of conferences on the subject of tobacco regulation and secondhand smoke, the theme being that regulation didn’t stop smoking and that secondhand smoke didn’t hurt people. Note that this is the one case ever where the Fraser Institute has argued that government regulation had no effect on the consumption of a product, and thus is glaringly hypocritical. This was not lost on anti-smoking officials at the time, some of whom noted that one of the men on the Institute’s Board at the time was Brian Levitt, EO of the Imasco tobacco company.
In January 2000, fundraiser Sherry Stein wrote to British American Tobacco chairman Martin Broughton describing their new Social Affairs project, created thanks to “the generous support of Rothman’s International and Phillip Morris” (the dominant American cigarette companies) and proposing another new operation, the Risk and Regulation Centre, which would be backed by BAT. The Fraser Institute, Stein explained, was dedicated to overturning the “overbearing and overreaching welfare establishment, in concert with its burgeoning client groups in the helping professions” — in this case, Health Canada and medical associations, which were correctly saying that cigarette smoke causes cancer. She noted the existence of one Fraser Institute product, Passive Smoke, claiming (falsely, I might add) that there was no conclusive link between secondhand smoke and lung cancer, and asked for £50,000 (about $100,000) to produce further, similar work. A similar letter from Michael Walker suggested the money be divided evenly between the two centres, and added that Imperial Tobacco, JTI Macdonald, and Benson & Hedges were also coming onboard.
In July 2000, Director of Development Sherry Stein wrote to Adrian Payne, BAT’s manager of International Scientific Affairs, enclosing several copies of a Fraser Institute study on tobacco regulation, sharing her pleasure that the media was accepting the message that government regulations and taxes were not having any effect on smoking rates. The relationship expanded later that year when she wrote again asking for BAT support for three tobacco-related projects at the Institute. These were a luncheon launching the new Centre for Studies in Risk and Regulation, featuring John Stossel of ABC News; and expanded distribution of a pair of studies opposing government regulation of tobacco. Costs ranged from $30,000 for the luncheon to $48,000 for one of the studies. In that case, the Institute promised, BAT would not only be purchasing the study’s dissemination but also editorials in “major newspapers” and seminars for students. Significantly, it notes that the Donner Canadian Foundation also contributed to the development of this study.
Stein wrote Payne again in December, by which time BAT was donating £10,000 (about $20,000 here) to help subsidize distribution of the smaller study on the same subject. Stein told Payne that his “Canadian colleagues” were also welcoming the study. An attached sheet puts the costs of the Safe Enough? Managing Risk and Regulation project at $42,400. It noted that “firms selling products… prone to being attacked by fear-mongers” (in other words, products that destroy the environment or cause lung cancer) should invest in public propaganda to create “a friendlier and more profitable future business climate.”
That the Fraser Institute is willing to sell itself for money to whomever wants a vaguely libertarian research study published is important. It is equally important to know how the tobacco industry viewed this relationship. The documents on this are vaguer, but they’re there. At Philip Morris, a PowerPoint briefing on its External Affairs division noted its “key audiences” (African- and Asian-Americans, Hispanics, Indians, and women), the need to “leverage humanitarian aid (disaster relief) in support of PM goals & priorities,” and the prospects of “partnership” with the Fraser Institute and various other think tanks. Philip Morris referred to its relationship with the think tanks with the codename FIRESTORM. In September 1999, one memo, for instance, noted that they would brief the Fraser Institute, the Pacific Research Institute, and several like-minded groups:
As expected our public policy group allies — who have been allies for some time & who generally share our philosophy — seem to be an “easy sell.” This is not a contentious group, they understand what we are trying to do… They appreciate the advance warning &, I suspect, would be prepared to do outreach @ the appropriate time, if necessary.
Yes indeed, they were prepared to “do outreach,” for cash of course. I intend to refer to the Fraser Institute’s decision to front for the tobacco lobby for cash on every future occasion I have need to reference them on this blog.Tweet