The problem facing cigarette manufacturers decades ago involved tragic deaths and bad publicity, but it had nothing to do with cancer. It had to do with house fires.
Smoldering cigarettes were sparking fires and killing people. And tobacco executives didn't care for one obvious solution: create a "fire-safe" cigarette, one less likely to start a blaze.
But executives realized they lacked credibility, especially when burn victims and firefighters were pushing for changes to cigarettes.
So Big Tobacco launched an aggressive and cunning campaign to "neutralize" firefighting organizations and persuade these far more trusted groups to adopt tobacco's cause as their own. The industry poured millions of dollars into the effort, doling out grants to fire groups and hiring consultants to court them.
These strategic investments endeared cigarette executives to groups they called their "fire service friends."
"To give us clout, to give us power, to give us credibility, to give us leverage, to give us access where we don't ordinarily have access ourselves — those are the kinds of things that we're looking for," a Philip Morris executive told his peers in a 1984 training session on this strategy.
The tobacco industry's biggest prize? The National Association of State Fire Marshals, which represented the No. 1 fire officials in each state.
A former tobacco executive, Peter Sparber, helped organize the group, then steered its national agenda. He shaped its requests for federal rules requiring flame retardant furniture and fed the marshals tobacco's arguments for why altering furniture was a more effective way to prevent fires than altering cigarettes.
For years, the tobacco industry paid Sparber for what the marshals mistakenly thought was volunteer work.
The Tribune discovered details about Big Tobacco's secretive campaign buried among the 13 million documents cigarette executives made public after settling lawsuits that recouped the cost of treating sick smokers. These internal memos, speeches and strategic plans reveal the surprising and influential role of Big Tobacco in the buildup of toxic chemicals in American furniture.
This clever manipulation set the stage for a similar campaign of distortion and misdirection by the chemical industry that continues to this day.
Andrew McGuire, a burn survivor and MacArthur "genius grant" winner, said Sparber and the National Association of State Fire Marshals for years were his nemeses as he has pushed for fire-safe cigarettes, which would stop burning when not being smoked. McGuire came up against them again when he battled for reductions in the amount of flame retardant chemicals in Americans' homes.
"He played them like a Stradivarius," McGuire said of Sparber's relationship with the fire marshals.
A founding member of the fire marshals group disputes that they were unduly influenced, but he said he regrets that the organization accepted tobacco's money.
"There is no way you can explain to the public that taking money from the tobacco industry is a good thing," said Tom Brace, who served as a marshal in Minnesota and Washington state. "And had I to do that over again, I would not do that."
Brace and the fire marshals group often were at odds with colleagues in the firefighting community who worked to scale back the use of certain flame retardants after studies showed they can make smoke more toxic.
The fire marshals organization continued promoting flame retardant products even after it was clear that the chemicals inside were escaping, settling in dust and winding up in the bodies of babies and adults worldwide.
The marshals continued even after flame retardants were linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility.
Big Tobacco wins fire marshals as allies in flame retardant push
Cigarette-makers had man on the inside of key fire-safety group
Big Tobacco helped fuel the widespread use of flame retardants in upholstered furniture. (Tribune photo illustration)