As Big Tobacco Defends Itself In Court, It Gets Help From Academics : Shots - Health News Faced with lawsuits from sick smokers, tobacco firms argue the health risks were "common knowledge" for decades, and they often pay professors to help make that point as expert witnesses.

Some Academics Quietly Take Side Jobs Helping Tobacco Companies In Court

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Smokers have known for decades that smoking kills. That is the defense tobacco companies give when they're sued by sick smokers. The people making that argument are often academics who are paid to testify. WPLN's Blake Farmer takes a look at this practice.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: John Geer stares straight ahead with an iced coffee at his side, reading glasses perched on his nose. A court reporter swears him.


JOHN GEER: Yes, I do.

FARMER: This is a videotaped deposition from late October 2014. At that time, Geer was vice provost at Vanderbilt University. Off camera, you can hear an attorney for law firm Lieff Cabraser.


KENNETH BYRD: My name is Kenny Byrd, and I represent the plaintiff in this case.

FARMER: Byrd's firm has litigated many of these smoker suits. Cases brought by individual smokers have continued in the courts long after tobacco companies settled with state governments back in 1998. In the deposition, Byrd wants to discredit Geer's objectivity, so he starts by getting him to admit who's paying him.


BYRD: Dr. Geer, you understand that the expert work that you are doing in this case and all these cases are on behalf of the cigarette industry.

GEER: I understand it's on the behalf of Philip Morris. I understand that.

FARMER: Geer also acknowledges that over a decade of doing this, he made nearly $800,000. In court, tobacco companies no longer quibble about the dangers of smoking - quite the opposite. They say smokers have known since at least the 1950s that their habit could kill them. It's dubbed the common knowledge defense. But to make their case, they need reputable experts in history or, like John Geer, in public opinion.


GEER: I have studied a lot of polls and I'm confident in my opinion about the public being broadly aware of the dangers of smoking by the mid-1950s. The data are rock solid clear.

FARMER: Geer is a political science professor who specializes in polling. He's now the arts and science dean at Vanderbilt. He did not respond to numerous requests for comment, but court documents show he's worked 15 years for the Kansas City law firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon that represents tobacco companies. Like many professors who provide this kind of testimony, he cites a poll taken by Gallup in 1954. It indicates 90% of Americans had heard smoking could cause lung cancer.


GEER: Gallup was the gold standard. They are an amazing polling organization.

FARMER: But 20 years ago, Gallup's own editor-in-chief warned the professors to stop using this poll to say everyone knew smoking was bad for them. Gallup argues they're overlooking other polls from the same time that indicate people may have heard about the danger of smoking, but they didn't necessarily believe it. In the taped deposition, attorney Kenny Byrd reads Gallup's position.


BYRD: (Reading) A review of historical Gallup surveys suggests that there was in fact a high degree of public doubt and confusion about the dangers of smoking in the 1950s and '60s.

Did I read that correctly?

GEER: That's what it says.

BYRD: That's true, isn't it, Dr. Geer?


BYRD: OK. So these are - these people that work with Gallup, are they just wrong?

GEER: I have my opinions, which I stand by, and I'm happy to engage those opinions.

FARMER: But researchers who study the history of public health criticized many of the professors testifying for tobacco companies. They say when it comes to the historical evidence, they're cherry-picking. They point out that beyond the confusion about the dangers of smoking, this was also an era when doctors were endorsing certain cigarette brands on television.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) According to this repeated nationwide survey, more doctors smoked Camels than any other cigarette.

FARMER: Things were really different back then, says Stanford historian Robert Proctor.

ROBERT PROCTOR: This is another world.

FARMER: Proctor wrote a book about the rise and fall of the cigarette business in which he calls out by name other professors known to be working for the industry.

PROCTOR: They erase history by acting as if the things we know today have always been known.

FARMER: Proctor also testifies in tobacco suits but on the side of the smokers who got sick. He does this because the history of smoking is his specific area of academic expertise. He notes that professors on the other side almost never publish research on the topic.

PROCTOR: Because that would expose their thoughts to peer review. Experts often don't even put it down on their CVs, their resumes. It's absent.

FARMER: Our investigation found that to be the case for the professors who testify most often for the tobacco industry, even though some of them acknowledge in court documents they spend a quarter of their professional time on that work. They include historians Michael Schaller of the University of Arizona, Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman at Texas A&M and Robert Norrell at the University of Tennessee. None of them responded to interview requests. Lots of professors are called on to be expert witnesses. But Allan Brandt at Harvard says even when professors are in court, they're representing their institutions. Their academic posts are a big part of what qualifies them to be experts.

ALLAN BRANDT: I think it can harm the reputation of Harvard on scholarship and our universities when this isn't really put out in the open.

FARMER: Brandt is a former dean and a medical historian. He says when professors stand up for the tobacco industry and say smoking dangers were well known, they rarely make those same claims outside of court proceedings.

BRANDT: This is the ultimate public forum, and the ideas that are presented there really ought to be subjected to the kind of scrutiny and peer scrutiny that's so characteristic and, you know, such a desirable value of universities.

FARMER: He says scholars can't have it one way on campus and another way in court. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

CHANG: This investigation comes to us from NPR's partnership with WPLN and Kaiser Health News.

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