Media Knew in the 1930s: Tobacco is a Poison


Opening statements were made on Jan. 31 in a 13-year-old suit filed in 1998 by the City of St. Louis against American Tobacco, reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In all, 37 plaintiffs, primarily hospitals, are targeting 11 tobacco manufacturers.

“Ken Brostron, a lawyer representing the hospitals, argued that tobacco companies knew as far back as the 1950s that cigarettes were addictive and harmful, yet continued to manufacture and market them,” the Post states.

Mr. Brostron is wrong. It was known much before 1950 that cigarettes were poison, but the media suppressed this information in collusion with the tobacco industry. My apologies to long-time readers of this journal, who might remember that we reported on this some years ago. But the core of this information deserves repetition. Mr. Brostron probably never heard of George Seldes, the father of media criticism and journalism reviews, who died in 1995 at the age of 104. From time to time, we have reported on Seldes accomplishments and life.

First a word about Seldes. As a reporter for major newspapers, he offended every tyrant, was banished from the Soviet Union during the early years, barely made it out of Fascist Italy and in 1928 left the Chicago Tribune after the paper published full articles from the U.S. oil companies, but censored his dispatches from Mexico. He attacked the National Association of Manufacturers for assisting Hitler, Mussolini and Franco.

After his reports from the civil war in Spain were suppressed by some newspaper chains on the East Coast, he returned to the States and published the In Fact journal from 1940 to 1950. It carried the subtitle, “For The Millions Who Want A Free Press,” which he changed in 1943 to “An Antidote for Falsehood in the Daily Press,” and later that year to “Exposes Native Fascism, Corrupt Press, Lanor-Baiters.”

Seldes revealed a clause in the contract between the tobacco companies and newspapers that “no news and no adverse comments on the tobacco habit must ever be published.”

Seldes reported on many other findings on the effects of smoking. Hal Bieler, for example, analyzed at length the embalming effect of smoke on lungs (In Fact, Vol. VI, No. 25, March 29,1943). “The action of smoke on the delicate air-cells of the lung is quite similar to the action of smoke on a fresh ham hung in the smoke house to be ‘cured.’ The irritants which the smoke contains shrivel and dry and preserve and harden the exterior of the ham . . . When smoke is inhaled into the lung the same irritating process takes p

lace . . . When the stethoscope is applied ‘smokers rales’ are heard over the entire respiratory tree . . . He is unaware that his lung lymphatics are getting black with tar-like irritants; that the actual breathing capacity of his air-cells has been diminished more than one-half of the normal, and that his resistance to lung-cancer, respiratory diseases or to severe infections has been decreased to more than one-half of the normal.”

As early as the 1920s, scientists knew about the harmful effects of smoking. In 1927, Johann Plesch, head of the medical school of the University of Berlin, treated Seldes for malaria. Plesch told him to cut down on tobacco, because it contained deadly poisons.

In 1938, a study by Raymond Pearl of Johns Hopkins University showed that heavy cigarette smoking severely limited a person’s life span. By 1941, this study was published only by the Washington Post and a number of country papers that received no tobacco advertising. It was suppressed by “the NYSun, Post, News, Mirror, Journal-American and Herald Tribune,” Seldes wrote.

In response to Seldes naming the New York Times as suppressing news of Pearl’s finding presented to the New York Academy of Medicine in 1938, the NYT managing editor James (last names only cited) sent him copies of a mention of less than two inches. However, after non-commercial weeklies played up the story, it ran a 10-inch story under the heading, “Tobacco called a life shortener.”

In 1942, physician Edward J. Grace writes in In Fact, among others, “Cancer of the mouth, lips, tongue, larynx and pharynx is more prevalent in smokers than non-smokers.”

Reviewing volumes 6, 7, 8 and 10 of In Fact (the only ones in our possession), which published 102 issues during the war years 1942 through 1944, we found 36 articles lambasting the cigarette industry, revealing the dangers of smoking and the influence of advertising.

Later, others studied smoking. Only after Richard Doll and A. Bradford Hill in 1947 documented in a statistical analysis and in 1950 Evarts A. Graham and medical student Ernst L. Wynder published a landmark article, did the public become more aware that smoking was related to lung cancer.

Reacting to his unrelenting attacks on business and government actions, President Roosevelt ordered the FBI to investigate In Fact, causing the publication, which once had a circulation of 176,000, to fold. Seldes reports, however, have endured the test of time.

Charles L. Klotzer is the founder and editor/publisher emeritus of the St. Louis Journalism Review.


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