ROCHESTER, MN: A study analyzing Philip Morris' internal documents criticizes the tobacco giant; its PR firm, Burson-Marsteller; and a journalism school for their attempts to influence coverage on secondhand smoke.
In an interview, study author Dr. Richard Hurt attacked the tobacco company for funding training programs at the Herndon, VA-based National Journalism Center.
Hurt said the funds went to support speakers who would discount research on the dangers of secondhand smoke. They also backed an internship program to place reporters who supported the tobacco industry's position, Hurt said.
He noted that "hundreds of thousands of dollars" would be a "low estimate" of the amount of money that was spent.
He added that Philip Morris received PR support from Burson and an independent media consultant.
The study, which is scheduled to be published today in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, is the latest piece in an ongoing analysis of documents made public after a 1998 lawsuit against the tobacco industry.
Hurt, who was a witness for the plaintiff in that case, has spent years combing through the previously secret documents, which he describes as a "treasure trove" of information.
He noted that Philip Morris has been "making a controversy out of secondhand smoke when there wasn't any."
He added: "They worked in the background to try to influence the political process in the early 1990s."
Burson referred calls to Philip Morris.
"We communicate our position with all stakeholders, including the media, on an ongoing basis," said Jennifer Golisch, manager of media affairs at Philip Morris.
She referred to the documents as "close to decades old," adding, "Our position now is that the public should be guided by opinions of public health officials."
At the National Journalism Center, managing editor Mark LaRochelle noted that the program no longer receives money from Philip Morris.
He said that only professional journalists are invited to speak at the center and that third parties are not involved in job placement.
"The journalism center can't influence what graduates of the journalism center do," he said. "The tie is kind of tenuous."
Hurt said that his colleagues are just beginning to analyze media coverage from the center's graduates. He said that "numerous pieces" favorable to the tobacco industry have been published by center grads in leading publications.
"The tobacco industry coined the term 'junk science,'" he said, referring to an oft-used phrase in pro-tobacco pieces. "When they can get people to write these things down in reputable places, then they can influence public opinion."
Hurt said he doesn't expect much reaction from the media to this study. "The typical reaction is no reaction because [covering this research] usually causes embarrassment."