Attempting to neutralize charges that they are keeping damaging material secret, the tobacco industry began posting a staggering 27 million pages of internal documents on the Internet on Friday.
The massive disclosure of internal documents was, as the industry put it, “unprecedented in the history of American business” and may be the largest amount of material ever posted on the Internet in one day.
In a formal statement, the nation’s four largest tobacco companies added that “we know of no other company or industry that has taken such a significant step.” Hundreds of thousands of pages were posted Friday, and the companies promised that they would put the rest on the Internet as early as possible.
Richard Kluger, author of “Ashes to Ashes,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the cigarette industry, said it apparently had concluded that the “blizzard approach” to releasing documents would be helpful, adding: “They must feel there’s nothing further to lose in terms of the smoking gun.”
But Minnesota Atty. Gen. Hubert H. Humphrey III said the industry had exaggerated the significance of what it had done and stressed that the cigarette companies are still hiding vital material.
“It’s disingenuous for the tobacco industry to claim this PR stunt proves they are coming clean with the truth,” Humphrey said. “It’s like Richard Nixon taking credit for releasing the Watergate tapes.”
It is likely to take time to assess the effect of the industry’s action on Congress, where the cigarette companies are seeking approval of a $368.5-billion national litigation settlement they reached with 40 state attorneys general and private plaintiffs’ lawyers in June. It appears highly unlikely that the settlement will be approved without substantial modifications.
All the documents made public Friday were produced for Minnesota as part of the pretrial discovery process. They have been kept under lock and key in Minneapolis.
However, several hundred of the documents already have been introduced in Minnesota’s case--now in its sixth week--against the industry. The plaintiffs are seeking $1.77 billion in damages as compensation for money spent treating sick smokers. The state is also seeking damages for antitrust and consumer fraud violations.
The industry is still trying to keep secret 38,000 more documents. Earlier this month, the special master in the Minnesota case ruled that these documents were not entitled to confidentiality, but the industry is appealing that decision.
Moreover, the industry does not plan to release 5 million documents from the files of British American Tobacco Co., which are in a warehouse in England. Some of the most provocative documents introduced at the Minnesota trial so far have come out of that collection.
Mary Aronson, a Washington financial analyst, said the document release may help the industry in Congress but will still be seen as a limited gesture because of the large number of papers cigarette makers are fighting to keep private.
Indeed, one key Senate Democratic source said Friday: “We want to see the ones they’re fighting hardest to keep from us. We know the cigarette companies have a systematic history of doing controversial things through lawyers so that they can keep them secret under attorney/client privilege.”
Two weeks ago, three anti-industry Democrats, including Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), sent a letter to the judge presiding over the Minnesota tobacco trial, seeking his help in making the industry material more accessible. Their request came in the wake of the Jan. 29, 1998, promise of Philip Morris Chairman Geoffrey Bible to provide industry documents to congressional committees assessing the proposed tobacco settlement.
Waxman and his colleagues, John D. Dingell of Michigan and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, said it was not feasible for any member of Congress or for any congressional staffer to read all the millions of pages of documents produced in Minnesota without assistance.
Consequently, they asked the judge to permit Minnesota’s attorneys to consult with members of Congress and their staff about the contents and their significance. Additionally, they asked for indexes that the industry had provided, under seal, to ease the task.
Last year, the Minnesota Supreme Court, over vigorous industry opposition, ordered the companies to provide their internal indexes to the plaintiffs’ lawyers as a road map to the material. On Friday, the industry did not provide those indexes on their Web sites and accessing documents was not easy.
The congressmen’s letter also said that they believed they were entitled to see documents that the industry does not plan to make public--including those in the depository in England, as well as those “alleged to contain trade secrets if the documents relate to the health effects of tobacco, the manipulation or control of nicotine, or the sale or marketing of tobacco products to children.”
Friday’s document release comes on the heels of many secret industry papers being revealed as a consequence of litigation during the last decade.
It was impossible to make an immediate assessment of how potent the material is because of the sheer volume of documents being released. However, some papers shed new light on industry research on the effect of smoking on health, marketing efforts and other issues.
For example, one of the oldest documents from R.J. Reynolds--dated 1941--showed that company scientists already were studying the effect of “free nicotine,” the type that moves through the bloodstream faster to the brain and which recent studies show plays a critical role in delivering a strong nicotine “kick.”
The document also describes how goldfish were utilized for research on free nicotine and those studies revealed that free nicotine was six times more toxic for goldfish than bound nicotine.
A 1977 Lorillard research report showed company scientists busy working on how to maintain nicotine yields as they cut tar levels in cigarettes. Keeping up nicotine levels in lower tar cigarettes is an “absolute necessity,” the report said.
More fuel was likely to be added to the furor over industry attempts to hook young people on cigarettes by a Brown & Williamson document that describes the habits of smokers as young as 12. It states: “Get smokers as young as possible.”
Michael M. Krieger, a Los Angeles attorney who also is a lecturer in computer science at UCLA, said the industry’s action probably amounts to one of the largest deposits of material on the Internet.
Put in one pile, the Minnesota documents would rise almost 2 miles.
The first batch of documents posted Friday is a cache that has come to be known as the “Minnesota select set"--the ones that attorneys from the Minnesota attorney general’s special counsel Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, selected for copying and potential use in the trial.
The material includes scientific research, marketing reports, correspondence between executives and some handwritten notes.
Company officials said it had been a major undertaking to get the material ready to be made public. RJR spokeswoman Peggy Carter said that her company had to add new hardware to its internal computer system to participate in Friday’s release of documents.
Ironically, the introduction to RJR’s document Web site said that it contained five separate filters if parents were concerned about children seeing the material. Because of its Joe Camel campaign, RJR has been the cigarette company most under attack for marketing its products to kids.
Times researchers Julia Franco, Bill Laurence and Maloy Moore assisted in the preparation of this story.