Scott Brinton

The assault on science — and reason

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There I sat on a stool at the end of the lunch counter at Brookhaven Memorial Hospital in Patchogue, awaiting word on my grandfather, who had suffered his first or second heart attack of three. I was 8 or 9 or 10 years old. I was eating a tuna sandwich, seated beside my grandmother. My mom had gone upstairs to visit her father.

The year was 1975 or 1976. Suddenly my grandmother reached over to the cheap plastic ashtray full of cigarette butts in front of me and grabbed a half-finished stub. She asked the annoyed-looking woman behind the counter for a light, and she obliged.

There my grandmother sat, puffing away on someone else’s cigarette, while I ate, saying nothing.

My grandmother, a three-pack-a-day smoker, was hopelessly addicted to cigarettes, or rather, the nicotine contained therein. At that moment, I didn’t know it, but she was already dying. She suffered from late-stage emphysema and diabetes. She wasn’t allowed to smoke anymore, according to her doctors, but she found ways to sneak cigarettes when my mom, who was the primary caretaker for her and my grandfather, wasn’t looking.

In a few years, my grandmother was dead. I vaguely remember sitting in the car while my parents dropped her off at a redbrick care facility one evening. She never came out alive. The next time I saw her, she was reposed at a funeral home in Selden or Centereach; I forget which. The day before, there had been a shooting in the neighborhood, and there were two bullet holes in the funeral home walls.

That was the first time I had seen death up close. My grandfather, a two-pack-a-day smoker, followed her a year or so later, after his final heart attack. He was 55. My grandmother had died a few years younger than that.

No one — no one — had to convince me that smoking was bad for you. I had seen firsthand the devastating effects — the psychic and monetary toll that it could have on a family. I swore I would never smoke, and I never have.

When I was young, I had no idea of the political battle that was raging over smoking — how Big Tobacco had launched a full frontal assault against science and reason in order to continue peddling its deadly product. The remarkable book “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming” elucidates that fight.

Science, authors Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway argue, was co-opted by industrialists and opportunists who cared nothing for the irreparable harm they wrought. They thought only of profit margins and earnings reports. They were extremist capitalists. Along the way, they employed a cadre of legitimate scientists — most cold war era physicists who had helped design the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal — to subtly and not so subtly plant inklings of doubt in the minds of unsuspecting Americans, even though they themselves fully understood the potentially deadly effects of smoking. So long as a majority of Americans believed there was a small chance that cigarettes weren’t really bad for you, they would continue to inhale — and they did.

Doubt, as one tobacco industry executive wrote, was their product.

I recently picked up “Merchants of Doubt” at the Columbia University bookstore. The instant I lifted it off the shelf and saw its black and yellow cover, with a thick ring of cigarette smoke front and center, I was transported back to that lunch counter with my grandmother. I carry that memory with me always.

In reading “Merchants of Doubt,” which is so rich in detail, I became angrier with each page. How could any company knowingly peddle a product that caused harm and killed? How?

“As University of California professor Stanton Glantz and his colleagues have shown in their exhaustive reading of tobacco industry documents,” Oreskes and Conway write, “by the early 1960s the industry’s own scientists had concluded not only that smoking caused cancer, but also that nicotine was addictive (a conclusion that mainstream scientists came to only in the 1980s, and the industry would continue to deny well into the 1990s).”

I can remember, in the early to mid-1990s, feeling like I would vomit on flights back and forth from New York to Bulgaria, where I was stationed in the Peace Corps, because of all the smoke from Turkish cigarettes. Smoking wasn’t banned on international flights until 2000.

New York at last banned smoking in bars and restaurants in 2003. Then State Sen. Charles Fuschillo Jr., a Republican from Merrick, and Assemblyman Alexander Grannis, a Democrat from New York City, co-sponsored the measure. Gov. George Pataki signed it into law that March. Grannis had fought for 25 years to pass it.

If you want to understand the siege against science — most recently against climate science, which tells us that global warming is real — read “Merchants of Doubt,” or at least watch the documentary.

Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.