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Five leading tobacco companies met in secret on 2 June 1977 to plan a joint project to foster the idea that the harmfulness of tobacco smoke was not proven, but only a matter of “controversy”. The conspiracy was called Operation Berkshire (seehttp://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/321/7257/371), and a central aim stated at the initial meeting was to “counter the increasing social unacceptability of smoking”. This was entirely in line with industry thinking at the time: in 1979, a tobacco industry delegation attended the Fourth World Conference on Tobacco and Health in Stockholm, Sweden. A subsequent memo by one of the delegates, later leaked to the press, repeated an apparently well established industry fear that: “The social acceptability issue will be the central battleground on which our case in the long run will be lost or won.”
In Denmark in 1988, the government formulated a programme of prevention whose goals included decreasing the number of existing smokers, and reducing the rate of recruitment of new smokers. In particular, the government hoped to prevent, as far as possible, cardiovascular disease and cancer in Danes between the ages of 25 and 65 years old.
However, at the same time, an internal memo of Philip Morris (PM) stated: “We have scored a major political coup in recruiting Mr Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, the president of the Council of Ministers of the European Community, to spearhead a European smokers' movement.”
Uffe Ellemann-Jensen was minister of foreign affairs in Denmark, leader of one of the parties in the governing coalition, and well known from a long career as a television journalist. He was even elected “Mr Europe of the Year” in the European Community; and but for the wisdom of the Faroe islanders, from whom he needed less than 90 additional votes, he would now be prime minister.
Stig G Carlson, then director of PM's Nordic operations, recently commented that “it was a great step forward that the smokers' organisation Hen-ry persuaded Uffe Ellemann-Jensen. It showed that personalities with a public visibility supported the message of tolerance for smoking.”
By contrast, Mr Ellemann-Jensen denies he was recruited by PM, as does the company's present director for the Netherlands and the Nordic countries, Mr Jules Wilhelmus. Nevertheless, Uffe Ellemann-Jensen figured in an advertisement for the smokers' organisation which, while carrying the organisation's logo, was designed and financed by Philip Morris.
Uffe Ellemann-Jensen states today: “I did not care whether I had been used in connection with the Danish smokers' organisation. I still find that the organisation has a good purpose—to educate smokers to behave and accommodate. This I would not call misuse.”
This is not a fair description of the main activity of the organisation. In a recent booklet on smoking in workplaces, it refuted that environmental tobacco smoke is a health hazard. The booklet may be read as if the World Health Organization supports this view, and as if workplace smoking breaks increase the productivity of smokers.
Another memo from Philip Morris stated: “I feel that the investment in Mr Ellemann-Jensen was money well spent.”
There is more than a little truth in the memo. Of the Nordic countries in the nineties, Denmark remained the nation with the least restriction of the tobacco industry by law, the highest consumption of cigarettes per adult, and the highest mortality of tobacco related deaths in the age group 35–69 years. A recent poll showed that two thirds of Danes are tolerant of passive smoking. Today, Uffe Ellemann-Jensen is a member of the board of Scandinavian Tobacco Company's House of Prince in Latvia.
Operation Berkshire had a position paper circulating under cover of a letter stressing “the need for confidentiality and security”, as neither company “would wish the paper to fall in the wrong hands”. Fortunately, the social acceptability of this way of doing business has gone. To cite Uffe Elleman-Jensen himself: “I realise that as others use words like ‘recruitment’ and ‘investment’ and the talk is concerning a Danish minister of foreign affairs, all alarm bells should ring.”
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