John Wayne, Smoking and Climate Change

There once was a man called John Wayne. He was a very famous man. He was very strong and very tough. So tough that US army soldiers often referred to their toilet paper as “John Wayne toilet paper” because “it’s rough and tough and don’t take shit off no one”. He smoked 6 packs of cigarettes a day. Some doctors said that smoking was safe back then, so John probably wasn’t too worried. And he was as fit as a fiddle. Until he got lung cancer. Luckily for John, he could afford the best surgeons that money could buy. They removed an entire lung and he got better. Some say that maybe John got cancer when he starred in The Conqueror, where 41% of his colleagues developed some form of cancer, as the set was downwind of a nearby nuclear weapons testing site. But John thought it was from his 6 pack a day habit. So John stopped smoking cigarettes but was instead smoking cigars and chewing tobacco. And he got cancer again, this time in the stomach. Surgery couldn’t save him a second time though.

When John Wayne, maybe in the 1940s or 1950s was reading in the news that some doctors thought smoking might be really bad for your health, I wonder what he was thinking. Did he think that everything will be fine and that those doctors were just quacks? Maybe he figured that the risks were small. He could point to doctors that said it was good for you; maybe that always allayed his doubts? There was enough doubt in his mind to stop him from taking action.

Where did this doubt come from? Were doctors just crap back then?

No, the tobacco industry paid doctors to say that smoking was harmless.[1] Indeed, this became part of the whole strategy by the industry to cause as much doubt as possible about the link between smoking and cancer:

“I think we should give immediate attention to the possibility of running ads stating, in effect, that there is no scientific evidence of a causal relationship between smoking and lung cancer” (Brown and Williamson, 1967)[2]

The mounting evidence that smoking tobacco caused cancer was a severe threat to the industry’s profits. They had to stand in the way of science if they were to keep their jobs. Understandable perhaps, but still wrong.

Well the same thing is happening again. History is repeating itself and as usual, not many people are paying much attention. As the planet continues its inexorable warming, there are still people quibbling about whether the planet is warming and if humans are responsible or not. Many of the think tanks that say climate change is not happening or not caused by humans receive funding from the fossil fuel industry. When these think tanks are then quoted in media outlets from Fox News to The Economist as some sort of authoritative scientific body, these links to the fossil fuel industry are often not mentioned. Can you imagine if a tobacco industry-funded doctor today were to be quoted in The Economist for saying that smoking doesn’t cause cancer without the slightly relevant topic of his funding being mentioned?

Well that’s happening today with climate change. The fossil fuel industry is purposefully trying to distort the public debate in climate science and they’ve been getting away with it for over a decade. Doubt is their product and their pushing it hard. So hard that a substantial portion of public opinion in the United States and the United Kingdom still thinks that cliamte scientists are in disagreement about whether or not global warming is happening. Whereas reality is somewhat closer to this below:

peer review

Other studies have generally found that 3% of all papers rejected the consensus. Either way, it’s not exactly a 50/50 split. Who are the skeptics exactly? I’m not going to go into too much detail, because there’s excellent documentation on other websites I’ll link to here, but there’s not many climate scientists it seems. One of the most famous is an ex-weatherman called Anthony Watts, who has a blog called Watts up with that. Watts, it turns out, has received payment from The Heartland Institute which also receives funding from ExxonMobil, which was to the tune of $600,000 between 1998 and 2006.[3]

In the UK, ex-Chancellor Nigel Lawson heads the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), a think tank that excels in casting doubt about the scientific case for global warming, but it appears that Lawson may also have links to the fossil fuel industry. Certainly the GWPF is less than transparent about its sources of funding.[4]

I can’t exactly blame the fossil fuel industry for trying to protect their interests, even if they do it in an entirely dishonest and despicable manner. But I do blame people for ignoring the parallels between back then and today. Over 30 years ago, doctors were paid to cast doubt on the science of the harmful effects from smoking. Today some people are being paid to cast doubt on the science of climate change, although significantly this group hardly ever consists of any climate scientists.

The human race right now is John Wayne, and we’ve got cancer. Are we going to listen to the real doctors, cut down on smoking, get that surgery and recover? Or give in to industry-funded doubt and carry on with the same old habits that will make us even more sick?

– Note, of course John might have died from nuclear radiation rather than smoking. There’s no way to say which one it was, but in any given population we can say that a certain percentage of people will die prematurely as a result of smoking.
– The story of the tobacco industry, the fossil fuel industrry, climate change and other environmental and health issues has been meticulously researched and described in the book Merchants of Doubt  by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

2 thoughts on “John Wayne, Smoking and Climate Change

  1. From what I see and read online, the major accusation of being in the pay of special interest groups is labelled against the scientists who produce reports ( is that the same as peer reviewed papers?) warning about Global Warming, as they are deemed to be ‘protecting their jobs’ or ‘guaranteeing their funding’. Is this a case of getting your own retaliation in first? And what was the first published remark using that phrase?

    • The difference between the funding for scientists that say climate change is happening, and those that deny the evidence is that the former are largely transparent about their sources of funding whilst the latter are not.

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