Operation Berkshire: The Tobacco Companies’ Conspiracy

Advocates of tobacco control long suspected collusion among major tobacco companies over their refusal to acknowledge that smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and other serious diseases. Internal documents from the tobacco industry, now available on the Internet, disclose that in 1977 the world's major tobacco companies conspired to promote controversy over the link between smoking and disease, in an exercise called "Operation Berkshire.” Tobacco companies also opposed the funding of projects like tobacco cessation programs. The major tobacco companies agreed that they would not voluntarily make certain concessions about smoking and, if legislation was passed to force them, they would agree to sue. In particular, they decided that they would not concede the point that smoking has adverse health effects, but would instead attempt to create controversy so they couldn't be held legally liable for the deaths of smokers. They also formulated coordinated activities to promote the social acceptability of smoking. The CEOs of the top seven biggest tobacco companies — dubbed the “seven dwarfs” — testified together before the U.S. Congress during a hearing on the regulation of tobacco products on April 14, 1994, in which they collectively denied, under oath, the addictive nature of nicotine. Several of the tobacco executives also lied under oath, falsely stating that their companies did not manipulate nicotine levels in cigarettes. In the end, the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement was entered into on Nov. 23, 1998 between Philip Morris, Inc., R. J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, and Lorillard — the four largest U.S. tobacco companies — and the attorneys general of 46 states. The states settled their lawsuits against the tobacco industry for recovery of their tobacco-related healthcare costs. In exchange, the companies agreed to curtail or cease certain tobacco marketing practices, as well as to pay, in perpetuity, various annual payments to the states to compensate them for some of the medical costs of caring for persons with smoking-related illnesses. They also agreed to pay a minimum of $206 billion over the first 25 years of the agreement.