The Gas Industry's Deception: Uncovering the Parallels with Big Tobacco's Tactics

The Gas Industry's Deception: Uncovering the Parallels with Big Tobacco's Tactics

Decades-Long Campaign to Downplay Health Effects of Gas Stove Emissions and Evade Regulation

Posted by on November 09, 2023 61

Dr. Bernard Goldstein, a young professor at New York University School of Medicine in the 1970s, conducted studies on the health effects of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emitted by gas stoves. His research, along with his colleagues, identified a higher prevalence of respiratory problems among schoolchildren living in homes with gas stoves. After 50 years, Dr. Goldstein emphasizes the urgency of taking action regarding gas stoves.

A new report by the CIC sheds light on the reason for this delayed response. The report, which includes hundreds of pages of documents, unveils a decades-long public relations campaign by the gas industry aimed at sowing doubt about the health effects of gas stove emissions and evading regulation. This campaign closely resembles the tactics employed by the tobacco industry to cast doubt on the link between cigarettes and cancer.

According to the uncovered documents, the gas industry financed its own scientific studies using the same practices as Big Tobacco. They sought guidance from Hill & Knowlton, the public relations firm that worked with the tobacco industry. The industry-sponsored studies on gas stove emissions downplayed their detrimental health effects, contradicting independent scientific research that found higher rates of respiratory problems in homes with gas stoves.

In addition, the gas industry enlisted the help of consultants to attack independent science and foster uncertainty. These consultants claimed that the evidence was inconclusive and further studies were necessary.

The influence of the gas industry extended to federal regulations on indoor and outdoor air pollution. Gas industry studies affected the Environmental Protection Agency's decisions not to revise NO2 standards in the 1980s and 1990s. They also played a significant role in discussions held by the Consumer Product Safety Commission regarding potential measures to limit gas stove emissions.

Moreover, the gas industry's campaign of influence continues to this day. When a peer-reviewed study in December 2022 established a link between respiratory illness and gas stoves, the AGA (American Gas Association) hired Gradient, a consulting firm known for defending industry clients against public health research, to criticize the data.

In response to the CIC's findings, the President and CEO of the AGA acknowledged collaborating with experts to inform regulators about the safety of gas stoves. However, the documents discovered suggest otherwise.

The CIC report features an interview with Rebecca John, the researcher and author of the report, where she discusses the key documents that informed their investigation. All the referenced documents are publicly accessible on the CIC's website.In a recent interview, the lead researcher discussed the background and findings of a study that drew parallels between the gas industry and Big Tobacco in their use of tactics to downplay health concerns. Two key moments stood out during the research process, shedding light on the behind-the-scenes funding and manipulation of scientific studies by the gas industry. The first moment occurred when an article revealed that the American Gas Association (AGA) had sponsored research at Battelle Laboratories in the 1970s, which was widely referenced without acknowledging AGA's funding. This hidden influence became evident and raised suspicions about the tactics employed by the gas industry. The second moment came with the discovery of specific references to the titles of AGA-funded studies and the researchers involved, indicating the industry's use of these studies to challenge independent research and reassure the public, similar to techniques used by the tobacco industry.

To further investigate the suspected involvement of Hill & Knowlton, who played a crucial role in the tobacco industry's strategy, the researcher delved into historical magazines related to the gas industry. In a 1972 issue, a listing for a "PR Workshop" caught their attention as it prominently featured Richard Darrow, the president of Hill & Knowlton at the time. The significance of this finding was rooted in Darrow's previous work on the tobacco account, linking the tactics used by Hill & Knowlton to the gas industry.

When examining the timeline of concerns regarding the health effects of gas stoves, it becomes clear that these concerns date back to the early 1900s. However, it wasn't until the 1960s that advancements in laboratory research on nitrogen dioxide (NO2) as a respiratory irritant, coupled with anecdotal evidence of gas stove-related health conditions, solidified these concerns. In 1970, EPA researchers conducted their first study on the health effects of indoor emissions, prompted by the establishment of a connection between outdoor NO2 and respiratory issues. The study revealed alarmingly high levels of NO2, reaching around 1,000 parts per billion (ppb), which was approximately 20 times higher than the legal outdoor standard. Additionally, homes with gas stoves reported a higher incidence of respiratory problems compared to those with electric stoves. The study gained widespread attention after being reported by The New York Times, and an op-ed in The Washington Post called indoor air pollution a "menace" requiring comprehensive federal legislation.

Documentation from the time indicates that by 1970, the gas industry, which had been positioning gas as a cleaner alternative to coal-fired electricity, was already aware of the potential health issues associated with NO2 emissions. In response to the EPA studies, the industry began to delve deeper into this matter.The gas industry has recognized the potential problem of public concern surrounding the health effects of gas stoves. To address this issue, they have enlisted the services of Hill & Knowlton, a renowned PR firm known for their involvement with Big Tobacco and their creation of the infamous "tobacco strategy." This strategy involves casting doubt on the health risks of smoking and protecting cigarette sales. Through litigation against tobacco companies, valuable documents have been obtained that shed light on this strategy, revealing how Big Tobacco invested in research to defend their industry. These documents, along with other evidence, reveal the employment of similar tactics by various industries to downplay the health and environmental hazards associated with burning certain substances. A recently released report emphasizes the need to consider the emissions from gas stoves within this context.

In addition, the gas industry sought advice specifically from executives at Hill & Knowlton who had previously advised Big Tobacco. Richard Darrow, one of the architects of the tobacco strategy, recommended that the gas industry engage in public relations activities to address pollution concerns. He advised conducting research to alleviate consumer fears surrounding gas appliances and to stay ahead of any unfavorable news. Darrow assured the industry that implementing these measures would give them a voice and enable them to influence decisions that could impact their profitability.

Another key figure at Hill & Knowlton, Carl Thompson, echoed a similar message to the gas industry the following year. He warned that ignoring public concerns would result in people relying solely on critics for information. It is worth noting the similarity between the advice given to the gas industry in the 1970s and Hill & Knowlton's recommendations to tobacco clients in the 1950s. Both sought to assure the public by communicating that there was no definitive evidence linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer. This pattern highlighted in the documents underscores the gas industry's intention to finance scientific studies that supported their position.

The gas industry wasted no time in pursuing these scientific perspectives. Soon after Darrow advised continued research, the American Gas Association (AGA) began funding epidemiological studies at Battelle, a private laboratory that had previously conducted research for Hill & Knowlton's clients, including Big Tobacco and the API. Interestingly, agreements between Battelle and tobacco companies revealed a history of publishing information that favored the industry's stance. Researchers from Ohio State University also joined the team at Battelle, adding credibility to the AGA-funded research. This parallels Hill & Knowlton's practice of selecting experts who could lend an air of credibility while conducting studies likely to generate controversy over the link between cigarettes and cancer. Records indicate that at least three members of the research team from Battelle and Ohio State University may have been chosen based on their prior affiliations and approach.

Hill & Knowlton's history of suggesting strategies to the gas industry is concerning, as it demonstrates the organized and long-term campaigns to influence public opinion. As far back as the mid-1950s, Richard Darrow and his team from Hill & Knowlton recommended that the gas industry sponsor research to challenge the accuracy of information from a particular source. This reveals a pattern of manipulation. It is worth examining the significant studies funded by the industry and their findings.

In the 1970s, the gas industry financed two major sets of epidemiological studies. In contrast to independent research that established a link between gas stove emissions and respiratory problems, the studies conducted by researchers from Battelle and Ohio State University found no evidence of such issues. Two subsequent similar studies published in the journal Environmental Research failed to disclose funding from the American Gas Association (AGA), even though AGA contributed to the funding. Transparency regarding AGA's involvement was lacking. In the late 1980s, in collaboration with the Gas Research Institute (GRI), the gas industry partnered with a research organization co-funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and 28 automobile industry companies to conduct another significant study. Once again, these findings indicated no link between gas stoves and respiratory illness.

These studies had a noteworthy impact on policies and regulations. The gas industry not only financed studies but also provided financial support to third-party organizations and individuals to challenge research. This tactic, effective in the past for Big Tobacco with guidance from Hill & Knowlton, involved the gas industry not always disclosing their funding. The industry then used these paid-for findings to create doubt and increase uncertainty. Sometimes, they progressed further, utilizing this apparent uncertainty as a basis for making bold claims. Additionally, during this period, the gas industry engaged in marketing and advertising campaigns, product placement in movies and TV shows, and sought endorsements from renowned chefs, mimicking the tactics employed by the tobacco industry.

These industry-funded studies disrupted the emerging consensus on the health effects of gas stove emissions. From the late 1970s until the 1990s, these studies contributed to the EPA's determination that the evidence was inconclusive and further research was necessary. Historical evidence shows the influence of AGA-funded studies in shaping the evidence supporting the industry. For instance, out of the nine gas stove studies considered by the EPA in 1982, four found a connection between gas stoves and respiratory issues, while five found no evidence. Significantly, the four studies that found no link were undisclosed AGA studies conducted by the Battelle/Ohio State researchers. This demonstrates the significant influence of the AGA-funded studies in favor of the industry. This influence persisted for decades, as regulations and standards regarding NO2 levels were not revised until [year], and regulations for NO2 still do not cover indoor environments in American homes.The gas industry continues to employ tactics reminiscent of those used by the tobacco industry. They engage in sponsoring their own studies that focus on gas stove emissions while simultaneously criticizing independent health effects research. For instance, just last year, a study revealed a correlation between the presence of gas stoves and childhood asthma cases. However, the American Gas Association (AGA) funded a study conducted by a private consulting firm, which concluded that there was insufficient evidence to establish a causal relationship. This strategy by the gas industry mirrors the classic tobacco tactics of amplifying their own studies and making unfounded complaints to counter credible evidence, ultimately presenting gas cooking in a positive light.

Despite the industry's persistent efforts to combat regulation and downplay health risks, public awareness and concern about the hazards of gas stoves are on the rise. People are recognizing that cooking on a gas stove emits indoor pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and a recognized carcinogen. The scientific evidence supporting this claim has grown substantially, indicating a heightened likelihood of respiratory issues, especially in children and individuals with asthma, due to NO2 exposure. Furthermore, numerous studies have supported this association, highlighting the link between indoor NO2 exposure and health problems in vulnerable populations. It is worth noting that lower-income households and people of color may be disproportionately affected by gas stove emissions, as they often reside in polluted areas with limited space and inadequate ventilation. Consequently, these groups bear a higher burden of asthma. Researchers now unanimously agree that action must be taken to safeguard susceptible individuals from the adverse effects of gas stove emissions.

The central message conveyed by these documents and research is that the fossil fuel industry, similar to the tobacco industry, actively maintains the status quo despite the health and climate risks involved. This work emphasizes how the gas industry deploys tactics to diminish the dangers associated with gas stoves and obstruct progress in the energy sector.

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