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Andy Rowell: The Real Child Abuse Scandal

The Real Child Abuse Scandal

By Andy Rowell
16 February 2005

Those who work in the western media know that it is a very fickle beast, often driven by the cult of celebrity. It would be no understatement to say that it is obsessed with celebrities — what they do and what they get up to. It is also obsessed with sex. It is likewise obsessed with lurid scandal. Put celebrity, sex and scandal in one sentence and obsession will reach new heights. Add a super-celebrity, like the singer Michael Jackson, into the equation, and you are guaranteed near hysteria.

Those who work in the western media know that it is a very fickle beast, often driven by the cult of celebrity. It would be no understatement to say that it is obsessed with celebrities — what they do and what they get up to. It is also obsessed with sex. It is likewise obsessed with lurid scandal. Put celebrity, sex and scandal in one sentence and obsession will reach new heights. Add a super-celebrity, like the singer Michael Jackson, into the equation, and you are guaranteed near hysteria.

Earlier this month jury selection began in the long awaited child-abuse court case against Michael Jackson in Santa Barbara in the US. It has been dubbed "the trial of the century". Jackson is accused of some horrendous crimes including child molestation, plying children with alcohol and conspiring to commit the crimes of abduction, false imprisonment and extortion.

The story is deemed so important that over 1,000 journalists are in town to report it. Every single news organisation is said to be there. You can expect blanket coverage on US news networks, as well as throughout the Middle East. Some television channels such as Rupert Murdock’s Sky News along with E! Entertainment Television will even go so far as to present daily half-hour courtroom reconstructions with actors playing the main players.

Compare that media circus to another trial happening in the US, which you have probably not even heard of. It is also about child abuse, but on a much larger and deadlier scale. The US Department of Justice is suing the tobacco industry for $280 billion for a 50-year campaign of deceit over the deadly nature of its products. At the heart of this deception is the tobacco industry’s attempts to get children addicted to its products. It is estimated that, worldwide, some 250 million children and teenagers are at risk of dying from tobacco-related diseases.

It is not the first time the tobacco industry has been in court. Back in the nineties, 46 US states settled with the tobacco industry for $206 billion. Part of the settlement prohibited the tobacco companies from taking "any action, directly or indirectly, to target youth… in the advertising, promotion or marketing of tobacco products". However, since the settlement, according to The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids in the US, the tobacco companies have increased their marketing expenditures by more than 84 percent to a record $12.7 billion a year, or $34.8 million a day. "Much of this marketing is still targeted at kids," they argue.

But now the industry is back in the dock again. If successful the US Department of Justice could bankrupt some of the companies. The prosecution argues that it was back in 1953 that the chief executives of the five major cigarette manufacturers in the United States, along with the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton, "agreed to jointly conduct a long term public relations campaign to counter the growing evidence linking smoking as a cause of serious diseases. The fraudulent scheme would continue for the next five decades".

Since the early fifties it has been known that cigarettes cause cancer. So for fifty years the tobacco companies have known that their cigarettes kill. But for fifty years they have told us they were safe. For decades they denied their cigarettes were addictive, when they knew they were. For fifty years they have denied targeting children, but from leaked internal documents we know that they do. The tobacco industry has advertised cigarettes to children as young as five to try and get them addicted. The sordid truth is that the industry needs young smokers to replace older smokers who die from using its products. Indeed one US sales cigarette representative was once told by a colleague: "They got lips? We want them".

Studies have shown that internationally some 60 per cent of kids start smoking by the age of thirteen, with ninety per cent by the time they are 20. The Middle East is no different. In 2002 a survey undertaken by the World Health Organisation and the United Arab Emirates Health Authorities found that twenty-five percent of school students aged 13-15 had smoked their first cigarette before the age of 10. Some thirty per cent of teenagers interviewed had received free cigarettes from tobacco company representatives at some point.

The industry targets teenagers with a variety of extremely clever messages: trying to present cigarettes as part of adulthood initiation - an illicit pleasure, which like sex, is one of a few initiations into the adult world. Their adverts set out to equate cigarettes with rebellion, self-expression, self-confidence, independence, freedom, adult identity, and masculinity for boys and conversely femininity for girls.

This month at the Department of Justice trial, the industry’s dirty laundry was laid bare. It was the turn of Dr. Jeffrey Wigand to give evidence as one of the star witnesses for the prosecution. From 1989 until 1993 Wigand was Vice President of Research and Development at Brown and Williamson, which was until recently the US subsidiary of global giant British American Tobacco.

Wigand had been the central character in the Oscar-nominated Hollywood film the Insider, played by actor Robin Crowe. The film told the story of how Wigand, a tobacco industry scientist, had become a whistleblower on the tobacco industry, risking his life to expose their lies and deceit. He subsequently faced both lawsuits and death threats.

When he was appointed by Brown and Williamson, Wigand believed that he was being hired to help produce a "safer" cigarette. But this was a myth. As Wigand explained in his written testimony. "It became clear to me that Brown & Williamson had no desire to pursue a safer cigarette and, in fact, feared that such an effort would suggest that its current products were not safe".

Soon after joining the company, Wigand was told to go on a three day "coaching" session with company lawyers about the key issues of health and addiction. Whilst their customers died, the cigarette companies were obsessed about being sued by a sick smoker. "It was clear" said Wigand, "that they understood that smoking and health policy and the control of statements related to smoking and health were driven by the effort to protect Brown & Williamson in litigation in the United States".

The basic platform of Brown & Williamson’s legal defense was there was no causal relationship between smoking and disease and that nicotine was not addictive. The lawyers told Wigand that to defend the company in court it was imperative to show that smoking was a "free choice", that it was not addictive. "If it were ever demonstrated that Brown & Williamson was aware that nicotine was addictive, then Brown & Williamson’s defense in litigation — that choosing to smoke was the result of an individual exercising their own free will — would be destroyed" argues Wigand.

Privately it was well known within Brown and Williamson that the tobacco industry is a "nicotine-delivery business, but tar is the negative baggage" Wigand admitted. It’s the nicotine that keeps you smoking, but the tar that kills you. It is nicotine to which the smoker becomes addicted. So the purpose of the tobacco industry is to get people as young as possible addicted to their products. Wigand remembers being told by Thomas Sandefur, the then CEO of Brown and Williamson: "we need to hook them young and hook em for life". To this end, the company "manipulated" nicotine levels. Along with six other tobacco barons, Sandefur would later testify before the US Congress in 1994 that nicotine was not addictive.

Wigand explained how scientists like himself were not to use terms like "safer", "addictive", "disease" or "cancer" in writing in case the documents were used in litigation against the company. The scientist also told the court how "light" cigarettes are a fraud, because of compensation, where smokers "manipulate their smoking behaviour" to achieve the correct "delivery" of nicotine. Although Brown and Williamson knew that smokers did this, they continued to sell "light" cigarettes as a way of trying to preempt critics over health.

Over the next few months, countless columns of newspaper print and hours on television will be given to the Michael Jackson trial. The charges, which he faces, are indeed very serious, and time will tell if he is guilty. But there is already overwhelming evidence of the guilt of the tobacco industry. The industry is guilty of fifty years of deception, against us as adults, but also the most vulnerable, our children. The fact that some 250 million children and teenagers are at risk of dying from tobacco-related diseases is one of the greatest child abuse scandals of our times. We must not let it happen.

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