Tobacco documents: The end of the beginning

When I got the first box of around 4000 pages of secret tobacco industry documents on May 12, 1994, I thought they would have an impact, but didn’t have a clue as to how big that impact would be.

Being able to look inside the tobacco companies to appreciate — in their own words — the manipulation of everything from science to the political and legal systems changed the discussion. That understanding helped get tobacco control laws all the way from local ordinances to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The documents have also provided valuable insights into the tobacco companies’ internal research and marketing and allowed us to use that information to design public health interventions. And, of course they have led to other ongoing litigation against the companies.

The initial collection was a combination of that first box I received anomalously from “Mr. Butts” and combined with another 4000 or so pages that Brown and Williamson Tobacco released to try and counter the secrets in the Mr. Butts box. Ironically, the new documents filled in gaps in the Mr. Butts box and told an even more damning story. This collection formed the basis for 5 papers JAMA published on July 19, 1995 and our book The Cigarette Papers.

Then the collection exploded when State of Minnesota Minnesota Attorney General Hubert (“Skip”) Humphrey II broke with precedent and demanded that Minnesota’s settlement with the cigarette companies include releasing millions of pages of internal industry documents that Minnesota had secured during discovery in its case. That was followed by the Master Settlement Agreement, then federal Judge Gladys Kessler’s ruling that the defendant tobacco companies and their affiliated organizations violated the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, documents have continued to be made public every month since the Minnesota settlement.

And the collection grew to 92,553,761 pages in 15,022,232 documents.

As of today, the tobacco documents have formed the basis of 1033 peer reviewed papers, media stories, government reports and books.

The tobacco collection also formed the foundation for other collections on the pharmaceutical (including the rapidly growing opioid collection), chemical, food and fossil fuel industries.

But, now, the current era of document production is coming to an end. September 2021 marks the end of Judge Kessler’s order compelling PM and RJR to post their documents produced in smoking and health litigation.  The companies will no longer maintain their documents websites and the Minnesota Tobacco Documents Depository closes its doors to the public. 

But these materials will remain available to the public because the UCSF Truth Tobacco Industry Documents Library will continue to make them freely available indefinitely.

And there are still opportunities to add more tobacco documents, most notably from lawsuits against Juul e-cigarettes, particularly if the attorneys general ensure that future settlements make the discovery documents available in a form that makes them easy to make public.

I particularly want to express my gratitude to former Minnesota Attorney General Hubert (“Skip”) Humphrey II who broke with precedent and demanded that the discovery documents in the Minnesota case against the tobacco industry be made public because “the most important thing to come out of the litigation will be the truth.” He was right and that decision is still reverberating today as that principle spreads to litigation against the opioid industry.

I also want to thank Cheryl Healton who, as CEO of the American Legacy Foundation (now Truth Initiative) and her Board who provided the gift and endowment to UCSF to turbocharge the collection as well as other sponsors. Karen Butter, then UCSF University Librarian, and the Library staff and programmers for managing this huge task that many though were impossible at the beginning. Colleagues at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, with support from the Wellcome Trust (to them) and the Flight Attendant Medical Research Foundation (to UCSF) allowed us to retrieve the British American Tobacco Documents from its depository in Guildford England despite BAT’s best efforts to make it hard to do.

Thanks to their skill and careful work, the Library was able to conduct a comprehensive reconciliation of the UCSF tobacco document records with those of the company websites and the Minnesota Depository.   The few outstanding items and media resources that they identified will be digitized later so that the collection will have every document that was publicly available.

And there are still opportunities to add more tobacco documents, most notably from lawsuits against Juul e-cigarettes, particularly if the attorneys general ensure that future settlements make the discovery documents available in a form that makes them easy to make public.

Here are the UCSF Library people who helped build the collection over the years:

  1. Karen Butter: University Librarian (principal project lead, 1993-2017)
  2. Margaret Warren: Library Director of Administration (financial management, 1993 – 2008)
  3. Jim Munson: Library Director of Administration (financial management, 2008 – 2018)
  4. Rich Trott: Library Director of Technology Services and Strategy
  5. Albert Jew: systems administrator
  6. John Kunze: programmer
  7. Robert Mason: programmer
  8. Cynthia Rider
  9. Hedi Schmidt: Library Director of IT
  10. Ann Dobson: Library Director of IT
  11. Celia White: Librarian
  12. Robin Chandler: Director of UCSF Archives and Special Collections
  13. William White, programmer
  14. Gordon Lai: programmer
  15. Claude Davarenne: programmer
  16. Renaud Waldura: programmer
  17. Kirsten Nielsen: Librarian
  18. Polina Ilieva: project archivist for LTDL multimedia collections, 2006-2011; Head of Archives & Special Collections, 2012-present
  19. Rachel Taketa: IDL processing and reference archivist, 2005-present
  20. Kim (Mimi) Klausner: LTDL multimedia project archivist, 2004-2006; IDL manager, 2006-2016
  21. Sven Maier: IDL software developer, 2008-present
  22. Rebecca Tang: IDL software developer, 2011-present
  23. Tab McDaniel: UX designer (contractor) 2013-2017
  24. Jason Cater: programmer (contractor) 2014-2015
  25. Dee Dee Kramer: IDL manager, 2016-2017
  26. Chris Shaffer: University Librarian, 2017-present
  27. Kate Tasker: IDL managing archivist 2018-present)

(If we left anyone off, please let me know and I will update the list.)

Published by Stanton Glantz

Stanton Glantz is a retired Professor of Medicine who served on the University of California San Francisco faculty for 45 years. He conducts research on tobacco and cannabis control and cardiovascular disease/

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