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A guide to deciphering the internal codes used by the tobacco industry
  1. D Cullen,
  2. G F Wayne,
  3. G Connolly,
  4. H Koh
  1. Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  1. Correspondence to:
 Doris Cullen

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Many tobacco control researchers and advocates are now aware of the value of the internal tobacco industry documents made public as a result of the state attorney generals’ Master Settlement Agreement. A growing body of document based research provides dramatic insight into industry initiatives and strategies. These published studies also provide countless examples of the secret language commonly used by the tobacco industry internally. As observed in Philip Morris’ Dictionary of tobacco terminology: “Every specialized field has its own language”.1 The language of the internal documents is frequently comprised of project names, acronyms, abbreviations, numerical identifiers, and other coded terms, presented without any clear indication of their definitions or meanings. These coded terms can make the task of document research very daunting: like trying to learn a foreign language without an instructor or reference dictionary.

Familiarity with the codes used internally by manufacturers is critical to successfully conducting document research and interpreting internal industry activities. Although individual efforts have described the codes relevant to particular topics of research, no single research group has sought to identify the full extent and types of code languages used by the industry or the patterns governing internal codes. Many tobacco companies do maintain internal lists of terms. For example, over a dozen Philip Morris documents are devoted solely to providing their personnel with guides to the company’s extensive acronyms, abbreviations, codes, and terminology. Ultimately, however, the majority of terms and project names are not covered in internal lists, and understanding the meaning of internal codes necessitates both careful research as well as recognition of the common patterns and conventions employed throughout this terminology.

A critical role for tobacco control researchers is to develop and share information that can facilitate and expedite future research. A recent monograph, A guide to deciphering the internal codes used by the tobacco industry, available on the Harvard School of Public Health website (, identifies and describes a number of industry code lists and highlights different types of industry codes, both formal and informal, ranging from acronyms to “catchy” names, from numerical coding and letter patterning to signs of the zodiac and the names of world rivers. This monograph is part of a larger research project funded through a grant from the National Cancer Institute to list and define codes and project names used internally by the industry in areas related to product research, including product development, testing, and design. The ongoing list is housed online at We encourage other document researchers to expand this list by posting codes and definitions that they have encountered. The public health community has benefited in extraordinary ways through the availability of the documents to all; now we need to work together to identify and expose the secrets hidden within these documents.



  • This research was funded through R01 grant CA87477-05 from the National Cancer Institute.