The writings of Richard Kluger
ONE DAY EARLY IN HIS TENURE as president of Philip Morris, Joseph Cullman was bustling through the corporate offices on Park Avenue when he passed the desk of a new star recruit and noticed that Helmut Wakeham was neither smoking nor in possession of an ashtray.
Smoking was not exactly obligatory for industry employees, but ranking officials who harbored career ambitions were well advised to make at least a pretense of smoking or risk the suspicion that they were not totally loyal to the product. In the case of Wakeham, momentarily apprenticing to PM operations vice president Robert Roper but hired as a physical chemist with a doctorate from Berkeley to work in research and product development, there were extenuating circumstances. As the son of a German mother and a father who was a native Nebraskan adhering to and actively teaching the tenets of the Seventh Day Adventist church, Wakeham had grown up with the belief that smoking was a desecration of the temple that was the human body. While not unduly freighted by such dogma, the urbane and well-traveled Wakeham deferred to parental wishes during a career that included research in the oil, tire, and textile industries, and so arrived at Philip Morris as a lifelong abstainer from tobacco.
“I see you’re not a smoker,” Cullman remarked to him in a nonconfrontational way as he stopped at Wakeham’s desk. “Well, maybe you can be more objective that way,” he added and moved on.
It was a quick, shrewd read, of the sort Cullman was skilled at. Helmut Wakeham, his full head of blond hair going gray now in his early forties, saw himself above all as a man of science and cultivation. Blessed with a probing mind able to dissect technical subjects like the intricacies of cigarette filtration, he was equally at home discussing a play by Schiller, music from Bach to Debussy, or the politics of the Indian subcontinent, where he had worked for several years as a consultant to the International Cooperation Administration and the indigenous textile industry. He did not see himself as a tobacco chemist any more than he had seen himself as a textile chemist earlier. “I am simply applying scientific facts and methodology to tobacco problems,” he told a reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch soon after being transferred to the Philip Morris research center across the James River from the company’s main manufacturing facilities. Candid, precise in his speech, skilled at translating technical concepts into laymen’s words, Wakeham was tapped in 1960, two years after his arrival at the company, to be director of research and development. It was not long before he found himself occasionally at swordspoint with Philip Morris’s testy house counsel. “Paul Smith had been made company czar of the smoking and health question,” Wakeham recalled, “and, being a very ambitious man, saw it as the key to his gaining and holding power. He continuously raised the specter of the tobacco companies’ losing a lawsuit” that might prove ruinous, “but I didn’t altogether buy that view.”
Deferential though he was to his resident legal counselor, Cullman mandated an openness of expression among his chief subordinates which was the hallmark of his management; he did not favor yes-men or lockstep thinking. Wakeham was thus free to speak his mind and did so without excessive concern about his prospects for corporate advancement; his prime ambition seemed to revolve around the growth of his department, which within five years of his taking charge numbered 500 scientists and technicians. One of Wakeham’s principal forums for self-expression was a monthly seminar he conducted for the company brass on technical aspects of the business, often touching upon the health area. Attendance was high, if not mandatory, and was usually boosted by Cullman’s presence, though he would typically arrive a few minutes after the appointed starting time, scan the crowded room that had respectfully waited for him, and ask Wakeham with an impatience more detectable now as his power and duties grew, “How long is this going to take?” Wakeham would answer, “About forty-five minutes – if you don’t ask me a lot of questions.” But Cullman was a champion questioner, and Wakeham’s seminars often ran twice the allotted time.
One of the new research director’s early initiatives was to enlist Archer Martin, who had won the Nobel Prize for developing gas chromatography, to help train Philip Morns scientists in the new techniques for tracking down the thousands of constituent compounds released by burning cigarettes. Wakeham thought it elementary that “only by knowing the chemistry of tobacco and smoke could we ever hope to control the composition of our ultimate product.”
With the aid of the latest equipment, Wakeham was able to report to the PM research and development committee, in a memorandum dated November 15, 1961, that his lab people had confirmed at least trace amounts of forty-two compounds in cigarette smoke identified as carcinogens. “Present evidence suggests,” he added, “that smoking has a stronger tumor-promoting than tumor-initiating effect . . .” (underscoring in original text). Other portions of this memo also revealed high familiarity with health considerations and acknowledgment that the company could and should take measures to modify its product in response. Wakeham spelled out a three-part “Research and Development Program Leading to a Medically Acceptable Cigarette,” which long afterward he would explain referred to a product that the health community would concede to pose minimal risk to users. “I was a little bit naive,” he commented more than thirty years later, “in thinking that our critics would really like us to find a more acceptable product. I was forced to come to the conclusion after many years that they weren’t really interested in such a thing” – that health investigators and antismoking advocates, in short, wanted the cigarette to disappear, not to be fixed.
Wakeham’s three avenues of pursuit, as elaborated in his 1961 memo, were “Reduction of Irritating Factors in Smoke,” better control over the nicotine content of PM cigarette brands, and “Reduction of the General Level of Carcinogenic Substances in Smoke,” the last goal likely to consume seven to ten years since it “will require a major research effort, because . . . [c]arcinogens are found in practically every class of compounds in smoke . . . . The best we can hope for is to reduce a particularly bad class, i.e., the polynuclear hydrocarbons, or phenols.” The problem, he noted, was compounded because “[f]lavor . . . and carcinogenic substances come from the same class, in many instances.” What Wakeham characterized as a low-irritation, low-nicotine cigarette could be developed within two to five years in the normal course of R&D programs, he believed, but on an almost plaintive note he concluded, “A medically acceptable low-carcinogen cigarette may be possible. Its development will require TIME[,] MONEY[, and] UNFALTERING DETERMINATION” (underscoring and capitalization in original text).
Confronted by this telling document nearly twenty-seven years after it was written, Philip Morris lawyers contended that “Nothing in the memorandum indicates that Dr. Wakeham believed these animal carcinogens were carcinogenic in men.” But then why was he urging his company to undertake a major new research program? The latter-day lawyers, eager to explain away the Wakeham memo after a liability trial at which it had been disclosed, added that it was no secret that the listed forty-two carcinogenic compounds existed in smoke “in minute amounts.” But nobody knew in 1961 – or in 1988, for that matter – whether those trace quantities, singly or in some combination, had lethal effects over time and when taken in the steady dosages to which heavy smokers grow accustomed. And if the amounts were trivial, as the company’s lawyers implied, why did Wakeham think it worthwhile to reduce or eliminate them and thereby create a “medically acceptable” cigarette?
Two years later, in 1963, in response to a request from top management to advise as to where he thought the next thrust against smoking by health investigators would be directed, Wakeham expressed concern about “the cocarcinogen idea. With the hundreds of compounds in smoke, this hypothesis will be hard to contest.” Another new concern, which had been raised recently at an industry conference in Hamburg, Germany, was posed by nitrosamines, a likely carcinogen or cocarcinogen – a promoter of cancerous growth – formed by nitrogen oxides and nitrogen bases, “both of which are present in smoke.” The cigarette industry, Wakeham continued, “ultimately may be in greater trouble” because of the product’s association with emphysema and bronchitis than with lung cancer – and he did not deny or minimize the smoking link to any of the three, though he thought the threat posed by heart disease, to which nicotine had been linked, was relatively smaller, adding, “If forced to, we could produce a fairly tasty low nicotine product.”
In a memo sent the day before President Kennedy’s assassination, Wakeham sketched out the research department’s goals for 1964, still citing the hope to “develop a ‘medically acceptable’ cigarette in light of the present health attitude.” He spoke of his department’s past accomplishments in reducing nicotine content by leaf selection and irritating phenols by the use of cellulose acetate filters and cited as continuing targets the removal of hydrocarbons and nitrosamines.
The R&D effort under Wakeham and its frank discussions intramurally are of particular interest historically because of how they contrasted with what Philip Morris officials, under advice of counsel, were telling the public about smoking and health. Within a few weeks of the release of the 1962 report by the Royal College of Physicians, for example, President Cullman was reassuring stockholders at the Philip Morris annual meeting in Richmond, “So far, there is no clinical proof to support the theory that smoking causes carcinoma of the lung. There is evidence that smoking has pharmacological and psychological effects that are of real value to smokers.” This was the kind of calculated wordplay that lawyers relish, for while it was quite true that there was still no certifiable proof in the idealized form of what Clarence Little referred to as “the whole truth” – and would likely never be in the lifetime of anyone then on earth – there was a great deal of evidence that smoking caused lung cancer and other fatal diseases. Far more fanciful was Cullman’s contention that smoking had intrinsic benefits beyond keeping smokers temporarily glued together against the stresses induced by their addiction.
At the annual meeting a year later, Cullman stated, “While I do not minimize the health question, I think that eventually cigarettes will be exonerated.”
That November, even while research director Wakeham was sending memos to company headquarters acknowledging the gravity of the health peril, Cullman commented to The New York Times, “I don’t think the present product will prove to be a major health hazard. I also believe that changes can be made in the product if they are indicated.” This was a somewhat toned-down version of a statement attributed to an unnamed Philip Morris official in an article in Business Week two months earlier, when the industry was girding for the overdue report by the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee: “If they tell us tomorrow that a cancer-causing element has been identified in tobacco smoke, we could remove it by the day after.” In fact, what Philip Morris and everyone else in the industry knew was that cigarette smoke did contain cancer-causing elements; what they did not know was how to remove them without destroying the product in the process.
Some of Cullman’s public remarks suggested a man who, while hardly conscience-stricken over the hazardous product he was purveying, was uncomfortable with the contradictory stances the tobacco manufacturers felt they had to assume in their own defense. Interviewed for a Forbes cover story on the embattled cigarette business in July 1963, in which he was called “one of the industry’s least dogmatic, most forthright minds,” Cullman remarked disingenuously, “No company is working specifically on the health question. We’re trying to make a cigarette that smokes mild and tastes good.” Yet later in the story he conceded, “Of course this whole filter business has been triggered by the health issue.” But then he made light of recent moves by Philip Morris to bolster its non-tobacco business by buying Burma-Shave toiletries as a companion to its ASR line of shaving products and Clark chewing gum, a nontoxic alternative to smoking. Although with these new products PM’s non-tobacco revenues were now approaching 20 percent of total sales, Cullman nevertheless insisted, “But none of this is related to the health thing. We acquire other companies only because we like their future.” In what other industry, confronted with a threatened catastrophic drop in sales because of health charges against it, would a leading executive so transparently deny the truth – namely, that his company was taking prudent measures (a) to modify the suspect product and (b) to lessen corporate dependency on it?
Even to admit that the filter revolution was a response to the health charges against the industry, as Cullman did to Forbes, was enough to send Philip Morns general counsel Paul Smith into a tantrum. The whole subject, explained Alexander Holtzman, one of Smith’s younger legal associates and later a long-term lawyer with the company, “was a no-win situation for the industry, because there’s absolutely no evidence that filters are any safer than regular [non-filter] cigarettes. It was the kind of situation where you were damned if you do and damned if you don’t confront the health subject.” More precisely, the industry lawyers felt that the companies could not risk claiming any health advantage in lowering tar and nicotine yields because that would have amounted to conceding that the core of the scientific case against them – the dose-response data, showing that the more toxins you absorbed from smoke, the greater your health risk – was valid, opening the door to massive liability actions.
Thus, Cullman usually buttoned his lip on the health question and let the company’s professional spokesmen field such inquiries. Perhaps the most gifted of these, and the most defiant, was James Chandler Bowling, Cullman’s executive assistant and PM’s de facto public-relations chief, whatever his title of the moment. Like many of the smart, talented, and ambitious younger men surrounding Cullman throughout his long tenure, Bowling was a complex figure and not a little cunning. After having served as a model campus representative for Philip Morns while attending college at the universities of Kentucky and Louisville, Bowling brought to the company the wavy-haired good looks, dapper dress, and silken tongue of a riverboat dandy, nor was he shy about his ties to the socially and politically powerful. In many ways he was the perfect corporate man, immoderate in his love of the product, willing to do whatever was needed to defend his company’s honor.
When interviewed on the health issue in 1963 by Thomas Whiteside for The New Yorker, Bowling said his company’s researchers were hard at the task of modifying the product to make it more “medically acceptable,” but he spoke of “the health scare” as if the data were spectral and the charges born of animus. Of the link between smoking and disease, Bowling asserted, “We believe there is no connection, or we wouldn’t be in the business,” and later defended the industry’s executives as “people with a social conscience.” The antismoking case was established, Bowling claimed, “without a full understanding of the facts. Gosh, we’re awed how a story can be told and retold by the anticigarette people, and how little attention is given in the press to claims for cigarettes.” As an example of the latter, he cited a remark he had heard recently from a physician that if smoking were suddenly halted, there would be “more wife-beating and job dissatisfaction than people’s natures can tolerate.”
Remarks made to The New Yorker at that time by another rising young star at Philip Morris, tall, curly-headed John T. Landry, then company director of brand management and soon to blossom into its resident advertising genius, conveyed a craftier way of dealing with the health issue. Landry, who grew up in Saratoga Springs, New York, and from boyhood hung around the stables during the fashionable summer horse-racing season, was a bluff, engagingly profane transferee to Philip Morris from Blue Coal, where his advertising and promotional skills were wasted. A marketing man who enjoyed consorting with professional athletes and the sporting crowd in his hard-drinking off-hours, Landry had little use for the sort of research and surveys favored by George Weissman and relied instead on his instincts and street wisdom. Nor was he good at double-talk of the sort perfected by corporate apologists. He told reporter Whiteside that like their boss, Joe Cullman, Philip Morris people believed cigarettes would eventually be acquitted of the health charges against them but that they would never try to convince anyone that cigarettes were physically good for him, although he felt smoking eased tension – “and if I didn’t smoke, I’d probably develop a tic or something.”
Public statements aside, Philip Morris was at work trying to make its cigarettes less risky, even if the company had convinced itself that legal considerations and FTC strictures did not permit it to proclaim what was behind the effort. Nor were these attempts rewarded by commercial success in the early ‘Sixties, when the company brought out the charcoal-filter Paxton and the yet more elaborately designed Multifilter to appeal to health-conscious smokers. A major role in the development of both brands, neither of which gained more than a fractional market share, was played by Philip Morris’s No. 2 operations man, engineer Clifford Goldsmith, future czar of the company’s entire tobacco operations. Goldsmith, with a sophisticated grasp of the smoking and health issue not unlike Helmut Wakeham’s, personified the PM position; as he would put it long afterward, “To this day we don’t know what the harmful elements are in smoke. But whether you trust us or not, we were trying to be responsive to what appeared to appeal to the public.” If the strategy was to reassure the public, the tactic was to provide smokers with the most taste for the lowest tar and nicotine. “That was the game – more flavor and less tar,” Goldsmith added.
Eager to soften criticism from the health community, Philip Morris did not balk at buying support from useful sympathizers. And none was better placed to suit the company’s ends than Dr. Frank Horsfall, Jr., director of the cancer-fighting Sloan-Kettering Institute. Partial to Marlboro cigarettes, at least when he showed up at PM headquarters soliciting a corporate contribution to his institution, Horsfall assured company officials asking about the smoking-cancer link that, as one who heard him recalled, “There are more carcinogens in a tomato than in a pack of cigarettes.” Starting in 1962, Philip Morns made a three-year, $25,000 annual gift to Sloan-Kettering, and other cigarette manufacturers soon followed suit.
In urging the company to extend these grants in 1964, James Bowling wrote, “Dr. Horsfall’s opinion . . . has been beneficial. As head of the nation’s principle [sic] cancer research organization, he has tremendous influence.” Specifically, Horsfall had the power to muzzle the tobacco industry’s most outspoken detractor, Ernst Wynder, now installed with co-investigator Dietrich Hoffmann at Sloan-Kettering and producing a steady flow of damaging and well-publicized studies that documented the growing number of body sites imperiled by smoking. Bowling’s memo to his PM colleagues termed Wynder’s studies “attacks” on smoking and alleged that once the Philip Morris grants were flowing to the cancer institute, its officials “began subjecting Wynder to more rigorous screening procedures before letting him speak in the name of the institute. This had a proper and pleasing effect . . .. The deductible contribution to Sloan-Kettering is probably the most effective of all health research contributions.” Here was the genesis of the company’s later, perfected program of acquiring allies in the health debate by helping meet the financial needs of prominent social and cultural institutions, whose vulnerabilities complemented the tobacco company’s own.
©2017 Richard Kluger