In 1953 the tobacco industry faced a problem – their own reviews of the available scientific data concluded that smoking could kill. A report for RJ Reynolds stated: "Studies of clinical data tend to confirm the relationship between heavy and prolonged tobacco smoking and incidence of cancer of the lung."
Leading PR firm Hill & Knowlton (H&K) were brought in to "get the industry out of this hole". H&K indicated where the focus should lie:
"We have one essential job – which can be simply said: Stop public panic… There is only one problem – confidence, and how to establish it; public assurance, and how to create it…"
There +were+ other problems – caring for the sick, burying the dead, comforting the bereaved – but they were somebody else’s problems.
Flat rejection of claims of adverse health effects was a given for industry executives. But this alone was unlikely to pacify the public. Instead H&K understood that the key was to throw as many spanners as possible into the public’s cognitive works:
"The most important type of story is that which casts doubt on the cause and effect theory of disease and smoking." Eye-grabbing headlines were needed and "should strongly call out the point – Controversy! Contradiction! Other factors! Unknowns!"
Phil Lesley, author of a handbook on public relations, explains how this organised confusion can be used to prevent profit-costly action being taken on everything from ozone depletion to global warming, to nuclear disarmament, to lifting sanctions against Iraq:
"People generally do not favour action on a non-alarming situation when arguments seem to be balanced on both sides and there is a clear doubt. The weight of impressions on the public must be balanced so people will have doubts and lack motivation to take action. Accordingly, means are needed to get balancing information into the stream from sources that the public will find credible. There is no need for a clear-cut ‘victory’. … Nurturing public doubts by demonstrating that this is not a clear-cut situation in support of the opponents usually is all that is necessary."
The tobacco industry knew, of course, that the heroes of the ‘free press’ could be relied upon to play their part in "nurturing public doubts", as recognised in an international memo put out by Philip Morris:
"The media like the money they make from our advertisements and they are an ally that we can and should exploit… we should make a concerted effort in our principal markets to influence the media to write articles or editorials positive to the industry position on the various aspects of the smoking controversy."
The writer Gore Vidal puts it more succinctly:
"The bullshit just flows and flows and flows and the American media is so corrupt and so tied into it that it never questions it."
Fortunately for people and planet, one of the perennial threats to this strategy of organised bamboozlement is the rogue establishment expert whose credentials are matched only by his or her humanity. Consider, for example, Dr Gerard Hyland who, in a report submitted to the European Parliament’s Industry, Trade, Research and Energy Committee on 11 July 2001, has blown a wide hole in the silence and deception that surround the threat of mobile phone radiation.
Pointing to nothing less than an industry-inspired cover-up of the threat, Hyland, from the Department of Physics at Warwick University (UK) and the International Institute of Biophysics in Germany, describes how the voice of those with a view contrary to the officially perceived wisdom "is at worst silenced, or, at best, studiously ignored".
The impression of a campaign to suppress truth is reinforced, Hyland writes, by stories of industry attempts "to ‘persuade’ those who discover findings that might prove to be potentially damaging to market development to actually alter their results to make them more ‘market friendly’".
Existing safety guidelines relating to mobile phone masts are completely inadequate, Hyland reports, since they focus only on the thermal effects of exposure to electro-magnetic fields. Various non-thermal influences mean that existing guidelines intended to protect the public – such as those issued by the International Commission for Non-ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) – "afford no protection".
As a consequence, "a major contemporary threat to the health of society is man-made ‘electrosmog’". The nature of the pollution is such that, for people living in the vicinity of mobile phone masts, there is literally "nowhere to hide". Given the short time for which humans have been exposed to it, we have "no evolutionary immunity either against any adverse effects".
"Quite justifiably," Hyland writes, the public remains sceptical of attempts by governments and industry to reassure them that all is well, particularly given "the unethical way in which they often operate symbiotically so as to promote their own vested interests, usually under the brokerage of the very statutory regulatory bodies whose function it supposedly is to ensure that the security of the public is not compromised by electromagnetic exposure!"
Also doubtless driven by market imperatives, rather than genuine concern for public health, are efforts to establish a global "harmonisation" of radiation exposure standards, by attempting to persuade countries that currently operate more stringent limits – such as Russia and China – to relax them in favour of the higher levels tolerated in the West.
It can be no coincidence, Hyland argues, that in Russia, where the sensitivity of living organisms to ultra-low intensity microwave radiation was first discovered over 30 years ago, the exposure guidelines are approximately 100 times more stringent than those of ICNIRP.
As for the media, Hyland notes that there is "a regrettable tendency to attribute market-friendly (negative) results a greater significance, publicity and profile than positive ones indicative of the possibility of adverse health impacts".
An example of this is provided by the publication of the results of a recent study in the United States, which found an increased risk amongst users of mobile phones of a rare kind of tumour (epithelial neuroma) in the periphery of the brain – "precisely where there is maximum penetration of radiation from the mobile phone". This aspect of the report, Hyland argues, "completely escaped the attention of the media, who focused instead exclusively on the negative finding that there was no overall increase in the incidence of brain tumours amongst mobile phone users".
In the UK, as ZNet readers know, the media have stuck tenaciously to the claim that there is "no evidence" of adverse health effects.
Hyland points out that the problem is not that research necessary to establish mobile phone safety has merely been bypassed or compromised, "but rather – and more reprehensibly – that already available indications that the technology is potentially less than safe have been (and continue to be) studiously ignored," not only by the mobile phone industry, but also by national and international regulatory bodies.
Hyland gives as an example the conduct of the UK National Radiological Protection Board, which was ‘unable’ to provide the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones (IEGMP) – for whom they were acting as the Secretariat – with certain highly relevant published papers, on the grounds that they could not ‘find’ them.
This, despite the fact that they had been provided with the full references by at least two individuals who gave evidence to the IEGMP, and despite having had no difficulty in providing less important papers from the same issue of the journal!
According to Hyland, "If the same level of uncertainty and debate as currently surrounds the safety of human exposure to GSM radiation obtained in the case of a new drug or foodstuff they would most certainly never be licensed!"
Among the evidence of adverse health affects recorded by Hyland, is the following:
- There is consistent empirical, anecdotal evidence from many countries that the health of some people is adversely affected in various ways when they are exposed to the type of radiation emitted by mobile phone masts, despite its intensity being well below existing safety limits.
The anecdotal nature of many of the reported health problems – such as headache, sleep disruption, impairment of short term memory, nose bleeds and, more seriously, an increase in the frequency of seizures in some children already suffering from epilepsy – does not constitute grounds for dismissing them out of hand. Given the lack of research on this relatively new technology, such reports are an indispensable source of information, Hyland argues.
- There is documented evidence that long-term exposure to microwave radiation of intensities between that received near an active phone and that found in the vicinity of a mobile phone base-station does causes serious illness, such as leukaemia and lymphoma, in certain exposed people.
Furthermore, Hyland explains that children are at greatest risk for several good reasons, including:
- Absorption of microwaves of the frequency used in mobile phones is greatest in an object about the size of a child’s head – the so-called ‘head resonance’ – whilst children’s thinner skulls mean that the penetration of the radiation into the brain is greater than in an adult.
- The still developing nervous system and associated brain-wave activity in a child (and particularly one that is epileptic) are more vulnerable to the pulses of microwaves used in mobile phone telephony than is the case with a mature adult.
- A child’s immune system is generally less robust than an adult’s, so that the child is less able to deal with any adverse health effect provoked by chronic exposure to such radiation.
David Edwards is associate director of www.medialens.org