Tobacco Row

Is there any connection between $60,000 worth of tobacco ads in the December issue of Brill's Content and a six-page article in the same issue that bashes the media for overstating the link between secondhand smoke and lung cancer?

Absolutely not, says Steve Brill, editor of Brill's Content, who claims the infusion of tobacco money and his publication of a protobacco article are "a total coincidence." Brill, who is also the magazine's top business executive, says he follows a simple principle: "We run the stories we think we should run, without regard to who the advertisers are." (The article was accompanied by an equivocating editor's note explaining that the magazine welcomes tobacco ads—as does the Voice—although smoking causes cancer.)

Brill denies that anyone from his advertising department tried to solicit ads by tipping off tobacco companies to the secondhand smoke article. If anyone had done so, he says, "They'd be fired instantly." Besides, his advertising people "don't know the stories that are coming down the pike. They're not allowed to go look at stuff that's posted on the wall in the art department."

The $60,000 December bonus came in the form of four pages from Philip Morris (two pages for Marlboro cigarettes and two pages describing Philip Morris's charitable activities), plus two more from R.J. Reynolds. The ads were placed in September, when a full-page color ad cost $10,000. At the time, Brill says, "There is no way [the advertisers] would have known that story was appearing."

Brill has not had an easy time attracting advertisers, in part because of his commitment to hard-hitting stories, and tobacco ads in particular have been sparse. The December issue not only represents a doubling of tobacco ads, it introduces the first Marlboro ad—suggesting increased interest from Philip Morris.

There has been a longstanding controversy over the coverage of secondhand smoke. It stems from a 1993 report by the Environmental Protection Agency, which declared a strong link between secondhand smoke and lung cancer. In 1994, after Forbes MediaCritic published an exposé of the flaws in the EPA report, Philip Morris reprinted the article as an ad in several newspapers. Its author, Reason magazine editor Jacob Sullum, was not paid by Philip Morris, but he accepted $5000 from R.J. Reynolds for a reprint of another story. Sullum says he now regrets taking the money, because some critics use the payment to discredit his work, rather than assessing it on the merits.

In his 1997 Pulitzer Prize–winning book, Ashes to Ashes, author Richard Kluger wrote that the "case against the EPA findings was most expansively and persuasively argued... by Jacob Sullum... who contended that the press had uncritically accepted the EPA indictment of [secondhand smoke]."

Last summer, a federal judge threw out the EPA report, blasting the underlying science. That decision prompted Brill senior writer Nicholas Varchaver to review the report and the media coverage. He says he requested information from several tobacco companies, including Philip Morris. Philip Morris declined to comment to the Voice.

Varchaver's story is well-done, but, ironically, his diatribe against the media is so broadly argued that he downplays or omits some of the best journalism on the subject. "He does a good job of identifying the flaws in the report," says John Schwartz, who covers science for the Washington Post, "but when he talks about nobody paying attention to the criticisms of the report, he's wrong. There were plenty of stories in papers that he apparently did not read"—including several by Schwartz and others in the Washington Post.

Varchaver's article does not mention Jacob Sullum until the last page. One paragraph credits Sullum as an early dissenter, the next repeats uncritically the charge that he is "a shill for the tobacco companies."

For his part, Sullum praises Varchaver's work and urges that it not be evaluated in light of the tobacco ads. "It's heartening to me that they did the article," he says.

Varchaver denies treating Sullum or Schwartz unfairly, given the volume of coverage he was assessing. He admits he downplayed Sullum, in part, because taking money from the tobacco industry detracts from one's credibility. If that's so, then it puts Brill in the same tank with Sullum—except that Brill got paid 12 times as much.

Joint Effort

Matt Labash, a staff writer for the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, has made it a trademark of his journalism to infiltrate left-wing gatherings and ridicule them. So when Labash received an invitation to an election-night party for medical marijuana supporters, he couldn't resist. He called the Marijuana Policy Project, the D.C.–based lobbying group that was hosting the party, and talked to MPP director of communications Chuck Thomas.

"Will we see people smoking pot there?" asked Labash.

"No one will be smoking pot," Thomas recalls telling him, "but we can introduce you to patients who use it for medical purposes, if you need a photo."

The night of November 3, some 200 people attended the MPP party at Food for Thought, a bar-restaurant near Dupont Circle. The mood was festive, as exit polls were indicating strong voter support for medical marijuana referenda in Washington, D.C., and several states. Around 11:30, as party goers were drinking, dancing, and watching election returns on TV, Labash arrived with David Bass, the deputy publisher of The Weekly Standard, and ordered a couple of beers.

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