Politics

The Fight Against Big Tobacco Can Teach Us How to Fight Big Oil

For example, consensus about a problem doesn’t always lead directly to change. But local action—in your town or in your workplace—matters a lot.

Cigarettes and oil drums.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

The battle against human-caused climate change is unlike any other in human history—and yet, in spite of its unprecedented scale, climate-conscious citizens have found plenty of guidance from looking to the past. Activists have drawn inspiration from both legislative measures and grassroots movements, from the New Deal to the fight for reparations. One particular social initiative has been invoked time and again: the fall of Big Tobacco from its once-ubiquitous perch in American life.

Researchers and writers have often compared Big Oil’s possible pending demise to tobacco companies’ decadeslong decline. Sarah Milov, an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia, thinks there are lessons for environmentalists to take from anti-smoking crusaders, whose history she chronicles in dazzling detail in the book The Cigarette: A Political History. I spoke with Milov over Zoom to discuss the comparisons between Big Oil and Big Tobacco, the innovations and flaws of nonsmokers’ protest methods, and the unique challenges facing climate activists. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Nitish Pahwa: With the pandemic, we’ve started to see a lot of fossil fuel companies get hit hard in their financial bottom line. Fracking and drilling companies were already bleeding jobs, and now that’s been accelerated. Even when the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was put up for auction for drilling, Alaska just ended up buying it back. So it would appear Big Oil is in a state of vulnerability and decline, even after a very oil-friendly administration. Some people have said this is similar to the cultural and political decline of Big Tobacco, especially from the ’90s onward. Do you think this comparison holds weight?

Sarah Milov: I definitely think the comparison between Big Oil and Big Tobacco is more than fair. But I would say that to understand Big Tobacco, we shouldn’t look at the 1990s. You want to take that story back at least to the 1960s, which might provide kind of a note of caution.

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In 1964, the surgeon general’s report came out. That was the first time the federal government said there is a causal link between smoking and lung cancer. That link had been well established by the scientific literature for more than a decade, but it was obviously significant that you had the government saying it for the first time—maybe this would authorize some meaningful regulation. And you saw, very briefly, that Americans reduced their cigarette consumption. Maybe they were scared. Stock prices dipped, but then they came roaring back, as did cigarette consumption. In fact, cigarette consumption didn’t begin to fall in the aggregate until the early 1980s.

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So what the tobacco story shows is that people can take on interests, they can take on industry, but the fight is long. And my understanding is that climate activism is a relatively young, recent brand of activism. Obviously it’s on the heels of a much longer, centurieslong history of climate and environmental activism. But thinking about anti–fossil fuel activism specifically, it is helpful to understand that the fight against tobacco was half a century in the making before the public could fairly say they had control over this social epidemic.

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The surgeon general’s report both was and was not a turning point, and I think there might be lessons for that today. It was a turning point because it was a moment in time where public attention was riveted on this issue, but it was not a turning point if you step back and look at cigarette consumption historically, which continued apace. In fact, what the surgeon general’s report ended up unleashing, at least in terms of federal regulation, was moves by a tobacco-friendly Congress to shield the industry from more hard-hitting regulation by the Federal Trade Commission on cigarette packages.

Would you say then that the surgeon general’s report was more a reportage victory? Getting it to the point of “Yes, we have this established link, here’s what we need to do about it,” in the same way messaging on climate has evolved with attribution science?

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I think the surgeon general’s report unwittingly unleashed new forces that pushed in somewhat opposite directions. It was understood by companies that if they could get the tobacco-friendly Congress to give them a weak warning label, this could be tremendously helpful for them down the line in terms of their own liability. I don’t know how perfectly the analogy works with climate change, but we might expect that industry would also see an opportunity in regulation. It should always be remembered that highly capital-intensive industries frequently welcome regulation that can stamp out their competitors and also buy what they think is a modicum of respectability with the public.

On the other hand, the surgeon general’s report basically cast young lawyers’ eyes on the tobacco industry at a moment in time when there was intense interest in what we now call the public interest law movement. In tobacco specifically there was a young lawyer who said: We can use another federal regulatory route to try to countervail the power of Big Tobacco, through advertisements on TV. So you had millions of dollars’ worth of free airtime for anti-tobacco ads. That route isn’t exactly there for climate activists. But perhaps or especially because of the history of tobacco, I think media consumers are hopefully slightly more skeptical of spots bought and paid for by the American Petroleum Institute.

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With regard to the advertising bit, obviously we have a much different media landscape than we’d had back in the ’70s. There are all these quibbles over labeling social media ads, which spread misinformation, or you’ve started to see how the natural gas industry is

Paying for influencers, just like Juul did.

Exactly. Or you see BP pledging net-zero by 2050, which is very different from zero emissions. And you also see such companies trying to co-opt messaging from younger climate groups. Are there steps climate activists could make on the advertising front, similar to how nonsmokers took on advertising regulations for cigarettes?

One particularly effective anti-tobacco advertising campaign was from the 1990s: the “Truth” campaign. It did a really brilliant job of scrutinizing tobacco executives and their lies and their hypocrisy. The campaign was: Teenagers respond to cynicism, and maybe they won’t pick up a cigarette if they feel cynically toward the CEOs of tobacco companies. But what’s the equivalent pitch today? What are we asking teenagers not to do in their lives today? If they were to see an extremely effective ad making fun of Shell’s CEO, what is the pitch? Don’t drive? Don’t go into a building, since buildings are responsible for huge amounts of carbon emissions? The structural nature of climate change, I think, poses somewhat of a more difficult challenge for activists than the very personal nature of smoking.

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A lot of countries over the past few years have asked whether pollution is a human rights issue. You’ve written in your own research about the movement for the right to breathe clean air. We’ve also had court cases tentatively pop up advocating for future generations. Do you see invoking the human rights aspect of it—thinking of the children—as a viable path forward for climate activists?

I think in this regard climate activists should learn from what I consider to be a blind spot of the nonsmokers’ rights movement, which was a real inattention to class and race. The nonsmokers’ rights movement was almost forthright in saying that, for example, workers who smoke are bad workers, so this workplace should ban smoking. Even today we see that nonsmoking is a class issue: Smokers tend to be less educated and less wealthy than nonsmokers. That is in part a legacy of how the nonsmokers’ rights movement proceeded, its assumptions, the base of the movement itself—and not to put entire blame on the movement, where resources were targeted and were not targeted to help people quit smoking.

I think a lesson from this is to fuse the insights of scholarship in journalism, in environmental racism, with the climate suits to show that climate change places a disproportionate burden on Black Americans, on communities of color, on Native Americans, and to make that central to the argument. That’s actually something where you don’t want to follow the anti-tobacco playbook.

I’m really glad you brought that up because you see in climate reporting that so many environmental justice groups have had to reckon with their own racist legacies or lack of apt representation, or the fact that a lot of famous preservationists and environmentalists—

Happened to be eugenicists. It’s actually like a natal connection between a desire for environmental purity and ideas about racial purity circulating in the early 20th century.

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Researchers now are keenly aware of and sensitive to these issues—and not just issues on the access of race and class, but also on the axis of sexual identity. There’s a lot of research about how the tobacco industry targets LGBTQ youth. So they’re much more sensitive to the various dimensions of the American population than they were in the 1970s.

A big point you emphasize in your book is that a lot of change came at the local level.

I think one lesson from tobacco is that there is actually a lot of consensus about who is to blame for smoking. And I think that today there is climate consensus, though it’s not unanimous—certainly the waters have been muddied by the assiduous efforts of industry to make it a partisan issue. But there are steps that can be taken at pretty much any level—from the individual to the workplace, to the city, to the state, to the federal government—to do something about it. Even if a smaller city were to announce its own intentions, that keeps up the momentum and feeling that people can take control over something. That was crucial in the fight against cigarettes, that you could see the results of the activism. If you go to your city council and give testimony about why you think smoking shouldn’t be allowed in the library, and the next week it isn’t, you can see the fruits of your labor. I think it’s really important to find ways for people to engage in a way that is local and real to them, and the government that’s most local and real to them is probably not even their city government—it’s their work. Every place of work is different, but I’m sure certain employers are probably more than happy to abide by certain small gestures that are even seen as cost-saving.

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One thing we’ve seen in the talk of the Green New Deal is the concept of a just transition for workers. For some oil workers with strong unions, those jobs are the only thing they’ve really ever known throughout their life. Has there been any analogous just transition for tobacco farmers?

There was some thought given to this in the early 2000s because part of the Master Settlement Agreement included money for tobacco farmers to buy them out of their production rights. Many farmers who did that were old and happy to take the buyout because it was a partial retirement for them and they had not been making enough money in tobacco anyway. It was a good thing for them, but it was a retirement. For people who were still renters, that didn’t look like a just transition for them. And in terms of actually transitioning to other modes of production, the wealthiest tobacco farmers continued in tobacco. They didn’t stop producing it.

I just want to say one more thing: that I think even thoughts of Big Tobacco’s death are premature. If you look at the stock market history for Philip Morris—or Altria as it is now rebranded—you’d be a rich guy if you invested in the 1990s held onto that stock even till today. The very recent history of Big Tobacco, Juul’s ultimate fate notwithstanding, shows remarkable resilience and a voracious appetite to move into new markets, move into the developing world, buy goodwill in the form of harm reduction, and say, “We’re going to promote both the disease and its cure.” I wonder if there is not an analogy to Shell or other oil companies’ investment in renewables. In terms of tobacco’s public presence in American life, yes, smoking rates are much reduced, but overall revenues are up and people across the world continue to smoke—especially as smoking is seen in many places as a kind of emblem and harbinger of development.

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