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Investigating Tobacco Industry Research on Polonium-210

Institution: Stanford University
Investigator(s): Brianna Rego, M.A.
Award Cycle: 2010 (Cycle 19) Grant #: 19DT-0005 Award: $54,504
Subject Area: Public Health, Public Policy, and Economics
Award Type: Dissertation Awards

Initial Award Abstract
On November 23, 2006, former KGB operative Alexander Litvinenko died in London of radioactive poisoning from the rare isotope polonium-210. As concern grew that others had been exposed, the British Health Protection Agency reassured that there was "no radiation risk" to the general public. This statement, however, is misleading, as more than one billion people worldwide expose themselves daily (and most often unknowingly) to polonium. The vector of this mass irradiation is not a vengeful government, nor an adversary in the style of Cold War espionage, but rather something far more common and ordinary: cigarettes. The presence of polonium in tobacco was discovered only a few days after the Surgeon General’s 1964 warning on smoking and health, and the tobacco industry was immediately concerned that this could cause a public affairs disaster. In the ensuing years, external scientific research continued on the origins of polonium in tobacco and the physiological hazards of radioisotopes in cigarette smoke. In response, Philip Morris, American Tobacco, RJ Reynolds, and perhaps other tobacco companies built and refined sophisticated and well-funded polonium programs of their own, as revealed by internal documents available through litigation. The industry kept all results unpublished and the very existence of the research programs was unpublicized. During the late-1970s and early-1980s Philip Morris scientists and executives discussed whether or not the industry should publish its own research. Ultimately, the industry decided that, as hardly any of their customers knew about polonium in cigarettes, removing it would have “no commercial advantage.” Examining the secret nature of the industry’s polonium program and the internal debate over whether or not to publish their results reveals the reasons why, despite decades of awareness and research, nothing was done to remove or reduce the concentration of polonium in tobacco. As I have discovered, the industry’s executives and lawyers made the conscious choice not to act on the results of their own scientists’ investigations, despite their knowledge of several methods to remove polonium that were proposed and developed by industry scientists. It is the customers who have had to live with – and die from – that decision. The polonium story therefore presents yet another chapter in the long tradition of public and private industry use of science and it is an excellent example of the friction between science and industry – and the resulting widespread health consequences – when science is managed by lawyers. In this dissertation, the impressive extent to which tobacco manufacturers understood the hazards of polonium and were concerned about public awareness of them are revealed by internal documents available through litigation. The polonium story is an excellent example of the Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program’s commitment to addressing tobacco diseases through a combination of public policy and scientific research with the ultimate goals of disease prevention and regulating the power and influence of the tobacco industry. Through my research, I expose the fact that the industry has long known how to remove or reduce the concentration of polonium in tobacco. By telling this history and exposing as broad an audience as possible to the polonium story, I hope my work will convince organizations working on tobacco control that polonium should be one of the first ingredients of cigarettes to be regulated under the new FDA legislation.