CORVALLIS - The distortions perpetrated over a period of decades by the tobacco industry may not be so easily traceable to individual fraud or deliberate deceit, a new study suggests, as much as they reflect powerful, systemic forces commonly found in today's society.
Before we cast the first stone at a few selected tobacco company executives as the sole personification of evil, society would be well advised to study this phenomenon at work - and learn of its dangers - in many aspects of private industry, public agencies and even higher education, the paper says.
"The history of the tobacco industry offers us a unique opportunity to understand power in modern society," says David Bella, a professor of environmental engineering at Oregon State University.
"It would be tragic if, after losing millions of lives to smoking, we learned nothing from this history," Bella said. "The tobacco industry is just one more vast, organizational system that tends to distort information in self-serving ways. But by no means is it the only one."
Bella's analysis of systemic distortion of information in the tobacco industry was just published in the professional Journal of Business Ethics.
In this report, he explains how large organizations can become a complex, functioning entity of their own, literally controlling the people who work for them and influencing their behavior in ways that create "order," fulfill presumed objectives and suppress disruptive information.
If facts gets twisted or stifled along the way, Bella said, it's often nearly impossible to find a single individual to blame, because the system is in charge more than the individuals are.
But the increasing emergence of these systems, the report says, is dangerous to a free society. The only real solutions are independent checks and balances, more challenging of the status quo, greater acceptance of responsible critics, and an involved, informed citizenry.
Bella's explanation of what he calls complex, adapting and nonlinear "CANL" systems might be called "filtering out the negative information." In huge organizations, that process is so complex that no one actually believes they're being deceptive, the report said - they're just doing their job.
The study outlined how this process worked in the tobacco industry over the past several decades. First, outside evidence would link smoking to disease and addiction. Threatened by litigation and regulation, the industry hires lawyers for its defense. Lawyers advise their client to avoid damaging internal information. So the industry's own research projects that might link smoking to disease or addiction are terminated.
After negative research is terminated, tobacco executives say there is inadequate evidence to support smoking as a cause of disease, and argue that such accusations are unjustified. Any statement within the organization making such links is considered "careless." Employees avoid "careless" mistakes. And although outright lies by individuals can occur, that's not really necessary - the end result of this whole process is a self-serving distortion of information that meets the needs of the organization.
In this and other large organizations, Bella said, a valued employee is one who supports systemic activities, secures funding, avoids crises, meets schedules, satisfies one's superiors and demonstrates other "can-do" behaviors that promote order and the assumed goals of the organization. These people and their activities are rewarded through pay, power and prestige.
By contrast, there are employee actions that threaten funding, disrupt schedules with questions or criticisms, expose problems and risks, and may constrain the achievement of the assumed goal. These people are perceived as troublemakers, he says, and tend to be weeded out, ignored, demoted, or isolated.
The troublemakers of the 1800s, Bella said, were abolitionists who denounced slavery as a moral outrage. But that powerful system of human exploitation, which endured in America for more than two centuries, was rationalized and defended by thousands of slave owners who were caught up in a system that almost controlled them.
The troublemakers, Bella said, were the people who knew the space shuttle Challenger might explode if it was launched under the cold conditions that crippled its rocket engine O-rings. But that information never made it through a maze of "can-do" employees who wanted to successfully complete their assignment and mission objectives.
The troublemakers, he said, more recently were tobacco industry researchers who found evidence that nicotine might be chemically addictive. But that research was suddenly discontinued on advice of attorneys - and nicotine's allure eventually became one of "taste" and "satisfaction," not addiction.
In numerous other areas, Bella said, he has analyzed similar systems of large organizations filtering and distorting information or behaviors in ways that make the organization run more smoothly. Major industry, the federal government, the military-industrial complex, higher education and systems of social interaction are all potential trouble spots, although on a smaller level, he said, you can see similar mechanisms at work on a far more localized basis.
In the case of the tobacco industry, Bella said it took persistent challenges by individual citizens, public agencies and independent research to eventually expose the web of systematic distortion. Meanwhile, in one recent year, tobacco products caused more deaths in the U.S. than motor vehicle accidents, AIDS, homicides, alcohol abuse, suicides, and illegal drug use combined, Bella's report said.
But the real value of that lesson, Bella said, will be when Americans take more responsibility as active, informed citizens and tackle similar problems in many other areas of society.