Tobacco company strategies to identify and promote the benefits of nicotine

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Abstract

Background

In response to a changing regulatory and consumer landscape, tobacco companies developed new strategies to promote cigarettes and smoking. We examined one of these strategies: to fund and conduct scientific research related to potential benefits of nicotine, and to use their findings to promote nicotine.

Methods

Qualitative analysis of previously secret tobacco industry documents from the Truth (formerly Legacy) Tobacco Documents Library (industrydocuments.library.ucsf.edu/tobacco), triangulated with data from other sources, including the online search engine Google, from the 1970s to December 2017.

Results

After publication of the 1988 Surgeon General's report on nicotine addiction, tobacco companies (particularly RJ Reynolds) intensified efforts to promote the benefits of nicotine while downplaying its addictiveness and health risks. Activities included building relationships with academic institutions and funding scientific studies of the benefits of nicotine on cognition and other performance areas through intramural and extramural programmes. Companies then promoted their research findings through public relations campaigns, often minimising nicotine's health risks by comparing it to caffeine or coffee. These comparisons appeared in highly publicised scientific meetings and interviews with the press. Nicotine-positive messages reappeared in the popular press and on some company websites in the 2010s.

Conclusions

Tobacco companies implemented strategies to promote benefits of nicotine to scientific and general audiences while minimising its health risks. These strategies reappeared at the time novel tobacco products like electronic cigarettes were introduced. A greater awareness of the source of claims related to purported benefits of nicotine could inform discussions about emerging tobacco products.

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