New Documents Reveal Denial Playbook Originated with Big Oil, Not Big Tobacco

June 20, 2016 


New Documents Reveal Denial Playbook Originated with Big Oil, Not Big Tobacco
Industry documents show common playbook is decades older than previously recognized

Washington, DCNew research by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) not only confirms that the tobacco and fossil fuel industries used a shared playbook, but also suggests that playbook originated not with tobacco—as long assumed—but with the oil industry itself.

As evidence mounts of the oil industry’s decades-long campaign of climate deception and denial, its allies have dismissed any parallels to the tobacco industry’s campaign of cancer denial. More than 100 industry documents drawn from the Tobacco Industry Archives demonstrate not only the legitimacy of the comparison between big oil and tobacco, but also reveal direct connections between these industries that go back far earlier than previously thought.

“From the 1950s onward, the oil and tobacco firms were using not only the same PR firms and the same research institutes, but many of the same researchers,” said CIEL President Carroll Muffett. “Again and again we found both the PR firms and the researchers worked first for oil, then for tobacco. It was a pedigree the tobacco companies recognized, and sought out.”

In one notable example, Stanford Research Institute – which proved instrumental in oil industry attacks on smog science in the 1950s and warned industry execs of climate risks in the 1960s – was funded under secret tobacco industry accounts to build a machine to test for workplace carbon monoxide. Similarly, mathematician Theodor Sterling, recognized by both tobacco executives and investigators as one of the industry’s most important assets in the fight against cancer science, worked on behalf of oil company interests before joining the tobacco fight.

“Big Oil created the organized apparatus of doubt,” Muffett said. “It used the same playbook of misinformation, obfuscation, and research laundered through front groups to attack science and sow uncertainty on lead, on smog, and in the early debates on climate change. Big Tobacco used and refined that playbook for decades in its fight to keep us smoking – just as Big Oil is using it now, again, to keep us burning fossil fuels.”

Today’s release scratches the surface of a vast trove of more 14 million formerly confidential documents in the Tobacco Industry Archives, many of which remain under seal. “These documents represent, at most, half of the story: the tobacco half,” notes Muffett. “The rest of this story—including vital truths about the history of climate deception – remains hidden in the oil industry’s files. Six decades of denial and deception is six too many. We owe it to ourselves, and to future generations, to bring that truth to light.”


Below are some highlights from the findings: 

  • In the late 1970s, Sir Richard Dobson served simultaneously as Chair of British American Tobacco and on the board of Exxon. Dobson is notorious for once suggesting that cigarette smoking in moderation is beneficial, asserting “the tobacco industry, in total, does more good than harm.” During the late 1970s, BAT alone shared Board members with at least three different oil companies.
  • Oil companies were testing cigarette smoke for toxins as early as the 1950s, including in partnership with research funded by the tobacco industry.
  • Exxon and Shell patented and actively promoted their own cigarette filters repeatedly from the 1960s through the 1990s, and entered into joint research agreements with tobacco firms to bring them to market.
  • Stanford Research Institute, which was instrumental in the oil industry’s Smoke and Fumes efforts, carried out similar efforts for tobacco spanning more than a decade, including psychographic analysis; testing filters for carbon monoxide absorption; and designing portable testing equipment to discretely analyze cigarette smoke.
  • A former Standard Oil executive recommended numerous oil-connected scientists for the Tobacco industry’s Scientific Advisory Board, many of whom went on to work for tobacco.
  • Theodor Sterling, recognized by both tobacco companies and Justice Department prosecutors as one of tobacco’s most important scientific assets for two decades, did similar work for oil companies fighting lead regulation before his work with tobacco.
  • Tobacco companies closely monitored research and developments on smog, lead, and other petroleum-linked air pollutants.


Note for editors:

[1] For a detailed discussion of the extensive overlaps between the tobacco conspiracy and the climate denial campaigns of the fossil fuel industries from the late 1970s forward, see Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway.
[2] The Tobacco Industry Archive is an online archive of nearly 15 million tobacco industry documents produced during the course of tobacco industry litigation. The archive is maintained by the University of California at San Francisco.


What others are saying about our research:

“We’ve had a year to get used to the idea that Big Oil acted like Big Tobacco, with the same cavalier disregard for anything but profit. Now comes the revelation that Big Oil was Big Tobacco. It’s like a comic book league of supervillains, except not very funny.”

Bill McKibben, Founder


“This groundbreaking work and analysis by CIEL should put to rest any doubt about the connections between Big Tobacco’s proven scheme to defraud and Big Oil’s campaign of climate deception. This repetition of ideas and common playbook are hardly coincidental, and CIEL’s documented findings make that clear. This highlights the importance and necessity of full disclosure by Big Oil to demonstrate the truth.”  

Sharon Y. Eubanks, Counsel, Bordas & Bordas, former lead counsel
for the Justice Department in federal tobacco litigation


“These documents shed bright light on the long and deep connections between the oil and tobacco industries and on the massive doubt apparatus of research institutes, researchers, and PR firms funded and mobilized by both groups. When tobacco companies were forced to release millions of pages of previously secret internal documents, society could begin holding them accountable for intentionally misinforming the public about the dangers of their products. I look forward to working more with CIEL and others to uncover even more evidence about leading fossil fuel companies’ efforts to deceive consumers and shareholders about the realities and risks of climate change.”

Peter Frumhoff, Director of Science and Policy, Union of Concerned Scientists


“We’ve been saying Exxon took a page straight from the tobacco industry’s deception playbook — now we know that it was actually Big Oil paving the way for Big Tobacco. We know how tobacco’s deception playbook wrapped: with industry executives held accountable in our country’s highest courts for their lies. The last 14 consecutive months have been the hottest on record, and we will make sure that Exxon and their industry peers are held accountable for robbing us of a generation’s worth of action on climate.”

May Boeve,‘s Executive Director


“This is an explosive find. These documents show Big Oil helping the tobacco companies set up their infamous public disinformation campaign in the early 1950s, while also providing advanced research expertise to help Big Tobacco understand the carcinogens in smoke that Big Tobacco was simultaneously denying made smokers sick. 

“CIEL’s latest scoop shows coordination between tobacco and petroleum in retarding progress on critical matters of public health at a time when air pollution and cigarette smoke were both under suspicion – rightly – as causes of lung disease, and where many of the same toxic compounds were at play.”

Dan Zegart, senior investigator Climate Investigations Center, author Civil Warriors: The Legal Siege on the Tobacco Industry, an expose of Big Tobacco