Tobacco companies obstructed science, history professor says
(19 February 2007: VIDYYA MEDICAL NEWS SERVICE) -- "Doubt is our product," stated a tobacco industry memo from 1969. For half a century, the tobacco industry tried to muddy the link between smoking and cancer. Now, with that effort long since failed, cigarette producers facing dozens of potentially ruinous lawsuits are once again attempting to manufacture doubt.
"The tobacco industry is now trying to win their cases by rewriting history, saying that everyone knew but no one had proof," said Robert N. Proctor, a professor of history at Stanford. "What they're saying is that everyone always knew it was bad for you. So if you started smoking in 1962 or 1972 and later got lung cancer, you have only yourself to blame."
Proctor will speak Feb. 18 during a symposium-"The Sociopolitical Manufacturing of Scientific Ignorance"-at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco.
Proctor claims that by the middle of the 1950s there was a scientific consensus that smoking caused lung cancer. But the tobacco industry fought that finding, both in the public eye and within the scientific community. Tobacco companies funded skeptics, started health reassurance campaigns, ran advertisements in medical journals and researched alternate explanations for lung cancer, such as pollution, asbestos and even the keeping of birds. Denying the case against tobacco was "closed," they called for more research as a tactic to delay regulation.
Drawing from his experiences as an expert witness in tobacco litigation cases, Proctor says that industry lawyers often claim that "government propaganda," such as warnings from the Surgeon General, was so overwhelming that the risks of smoking were universally known. But they excuse the industry's own counter-propaganda by arguing that the scientific community was unable to prove a link between smoking and lung cancer until relatively recently. If true, this lack of proof would absolve the tobacco companies of any blame for deaths caused by smoking and any charges of fraud for their campaign against the link between cancer and cigarettes.
"But if they were lying and if people actually believed their lies," Proctor said, "then the industry can be held liable because they were manufacturing a defective and fraudulent product."
Proctor has used poll results stretching back to the 1940s to show that in fact some people were ignorant of the risks. "Millions of people in the '60s, '70s and '80s didn't know that tobacco caused lung cancer or heart disease," Proctor said. "An increasing number knew, but not everyone knew. And not everyone knew because the industry was manufacturing doubt, fomenting ignorance. Industry executives created a climate of untruth that people bought into and died from."
Proctor also has delved into the phone logs and correspondence records of tobacco companies to look at what consumers were thinking. "Even in the 1970s and '80s, lots of people are writing letters to the industry saying, 'The government is brainwashing me into thinking tobacco is bad, whereas I have a grandmother who lived to be 82 and she smokes, and I've smoked for years and I'm still healthy."'
In an age when nearly everyone knows that smoking causes cancer, it might not seem important to study the ways the tobacco companies sowed doubt. But Big Tobacco's methods have since been exported to other industries. At the same symposium, University of California-San Diego history and science studies Professor Naomi Oreskes will discuss a similar topic in a talk titled "Confounding Science: The Tobacco Road to Global Warming," and journalist Paul Thacker will give a talk titled "Thank You for Polluting: How Campaigns to Create Scientific Confusion Kill Product Regulation."
How can tactics like these undermine the work of so many scientists? Proctor said: "There's a saying in the PR business that for every PhD there's an equal and opposite PhD. And if there's not one then you can create one through funding. And if you put a lot of money into manufacturing ignorance, it can actually work.
"We saw this in tobacco, and we've seen it in polluting industries and global warming," he added. "There are lots of people out there who'd rather have you not know what's really going on."
Science-writing intern Rahul Kanakia wrote this release.
Targeting the adrenal gland could be key strategy against heart failure, Jefferson scientists show
Scientists at the Center for Translational Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia have staved off heart failure in animals by using gene therapy to shut down the adrenal gland’s excessive output of fight or flight hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrine. By blocking GRK2, an important regulatory enzyme, they cut the hormone production that forces the heart to pump too hard, leading to heart failure. Such a novel approach – targeting the adrenal gland in addition to the heart – provides a potential new strategy against heart failure, and could lead to a new class of drugs.
The researchers, led by Walter Koch, Ph.D., W.W. Smith Professor of Medicine and director of the Center for Translational Medicine in the Department of Medicine at Jefferson Medical College, report their findings February 18, 2007, in an advance online publication in the journal Nature Medicine.
“The emphasis has always been in treating right at the heart,” says Stephen B. Liggett, M.D., director of the cardiopulmonary genomics program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, who has written an accompanying editorial. “Despite our best efforts, about half of all heart failure patients die within five years of diagnosis, so clearly something new is needed. These results add a completely new dimension to the way physicians might be able to intervene to improve heart failure therapy.” When an individual’s heart begins to fail, the sympathetic nervous system, attempting to compensate for the weakened heart, goes into overdrive, pumping out increasing levels of stimulants – catecholamines such as epinephrine and norepinephrine, making a bad situation worse. The typical treatment – beta blockers – inhibit the beta adrenergic receptors on the heart, blocking the hormones that force the heart to work overtime.
Dr. Koch’s group focused instead on the source of catecholamines – the adrenal gland. It discovered that in heart failure, the extra hormones “desensitize” the adrenal’s alpha 2 adrenergic receptors because of a rise in GRK2, or G protein-coupled receptor kinase 2, essentially turning them off. Using gene therapy to block adrenal gland GRK2 in animals in heart failure, the scientists were able to get the alpha 2 receptors working again and also found that the beta adrenergic receptors on the heart worked better as well.
“We’ve shown that in the adrenal gland, resetting the alpha adrenergic receptors by inhibiting GRK2 causes more normal regulation and the proper feedback control, and catecholamines are lowered,” explains Dr. Koch, who also heads the George Zallie and Family Laboratory of Cardiovascular Gene Therapy in the Department of Medicine. “If less catecholamine is presented to the heart, then the beta receptors restabilize and that improves heart function. The heart is allowed to relax and get better.”
“This is the first time anyone has identified a molecular mechanism involved in such sympathetic overdrive in heart failure,” adds study first author Anastasios Lymperopoulos, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Translational Medicine, and means that adrenal gland GRK2 becomes a new target for heart failure medications.
“GRK2 inhibitors would be a totally new class of drugs if they come on the market,” Dr. Koch says, adding that eventually, human gene therapy for heart failure could be feasible.
Return to Vidyya Medical News Service for 19 February 2007
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