Jul. 16 2008
Washington, D.C. — A study published online today by the American Journal of Public Health finds that tobacco companies have suppressed research and information on the presence of the deadly radioactive poison, polonium 210 (PO-210), in tobacco and tobacco smoke.
Estimating that polonium-210 in cigarettes may annually cause the deaths of some 11,700 people from lung cancer worldwide, the study finds that for more than four decades, tobacco companies have known PO-210 is present in tobacco and tobacco smoke. The industry suppressed information about PO-210 out of concern that it would cause public relations and litigation problems and to avoid "waking a sleeping giant," as one industry official stated.
Summarizing prior research, the study states, "It is estimated that smokers of 1.5 packs of cigarettes a day are exposed to as much radiation as they would receive from 300 chest X-rays a year. PO-210 has been estimated to be responsible for 1% of all U.S. lung cancers.... PO-210 may be responsible for more than 1,600 deaths in the United States and 11,700 deaths in the world each year."
Polonium-210 received significant media attention in 2006 when it was found to have been used in the fatal poisoning of former KGB agent and Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko. That poisoning sent health officials across Europe and the former Soviet states to isolate the source and contain potential areas of deadly contamination.
"This study provides another important example of how tobacco companies willfully mislead the public about the dangers of their deadly products and cannot be trusted to tell the truth about their products," said Damon Moglen, International Advocacy Director for the Campaign For Tobacco-Free Kids.
"The bottom line is that smoking kills and before taking a puff, people deserve accurate information about the many poisons in cigarettes, including radioactive polonium-210, and the many diseases caused by tobacco use. Governments must take action to protect their citizens from this deception."
Governments can effectively combat the tobacco industry's manipulation, and reduce tobacco use, by ratifying the world's first public health treaty and implementing a set of interventions recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) called MPOWER. These interventions, proven to be effective and inexpensive, include:
There are 157 countries that have committed to implementing these interventions by signing the health treaty, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. According to the WHO, tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the world today. Unless nations act now, tobacco will kill one billion people worldwide this century.
The new study, entitled "Waking a Sleeping Giant: The Tobacco Industry's Response to the Polonium-210 Issue", was conducted by researchers at two prestigious institutions in the United States, the Mayo Clinic and Stanford University.
The study analyzed internal tobacco industry documents and industry testimony and found that tobacco companies attempted, but ultimately choose against, removing PO-210 from their tobacco products. Research on the dangers of PO-210 was also stopped as tobacco companies feared the data would ignite a firestorm of public concern.
The study also found that tobacco companies "continue to minimize its [polonium-210's] importance in smoking and health litigation and remain silent on their Web sites and in their messages to consumers."
The study analyzed internal documents, court testimony and trial depositions from tobacco companies including British American Tobacco, Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Lorrilard, Liggett, Brown and Williamson, American Tobacco and others.