How one of the twentieth century’s most respected scientists was bought by the tobacco industry.
Hans Selye in 1950. Image: The Canadian Institute of Stress
On Edge is a series about stress in 2017.
Hans Selye isn't exactly a household name, but he was one of the twentieth century's most lauded and prolific scientists. Over his 40-year career, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize 17 times for his research in endocrinology and the immune system. He published over 1,500 research papers on a variety of medical topics over his career. He authored 32 books.
But Selye is best known for his pioneering research on the biological mechanisms of stress, which he singlehandedly turned into a distinct area of medical scholarship. During his lifetime, Selye published hundreds of articles about stress and founded the International Institute for Stress in Canada, turning this previously inexact descriptor into an object of scientific inquiry.
What is less well known about Selye, however, is that he was also a shill for the tobacco industry for the last 20 years of his career, and his skewed approach to our mental and physical health has skewed the way we define stress today. Indeed, much of his later work in the science of stress was bankrolled by tobacco companies seeking to establish a link between stress and chronic illnesses like cardiac diseases and cancer as a way to counter the narrative that cigarettes were responsible for these illnesses.
Selye not only helped popularize this notion, but also that tobacco products were a potent form of relief from the supposedly deadly stressors of modern life, an erroneous belief that is still widely held among smokers today. This long history of collusion between eminent medical scientists like Selye and Big Tobacco also casts doubts on the objectivity of contemporary stress research, which must be approached with a critical eye for tobacco industry influence.
The darker side of Selye's research would likely have become a historical footnote at best, or completely forgotten at worst, had it not been for Mark Petticrew, the director of the Public Health Research Consortium at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. As detailed in a 2011 article in the American Journal of Public Health, Petticrew and his colleagues uncovered dozens of reports that showed how the tobacco industry became a major funder of early stress research and actively sought to distort the links between tobacco, stress, and chronic illness.
"I think what's often overlooked is the amount of money and effort the tobacco industry put into influencing popular culture," Petticrew told me on the phone. "Basically what it's saying is life is very fast paced, very stressful and all of these things may be causing the cancer. So don't get too concerned about the cigarettes."
In 1936, Selye published a now famous letter to the editor in Nature, in which he described for the first time what would become known as general adaptation syndrome (GAS), or the physiological manifestations of stress. In this paper, Selye described his early experiments with rats, in which the "general alarm reaction of the organism" included enlarged adrenal glands and lymph nodes, as well as gastric ulcers.
The tobacco industry began to solicit Selye and other leading stress researchers as scientific experts
Whether or not he realized it at the time, Selye's description of a biological stress response had single handedly kick started an entirely new branch of medical inquiry.
Over the next 15 years, Selye attained international fame in the scientific community and earned the moniker "the Einstein of medical research." By the 1950s, Selye's work had also drawn the attention of the tobacco industry, which was ramping up its efforts to distance itself from emerging research that linked its products with lung cancer and other deadly diseases. As detailed in a massive trove of documents that have been released by court order over the last two decades, the tobacco industry began to solicit Selye and other leading stress researchers as scientific experts in its campaign to link these diseases to the stress of modern life, rather than cigarettes.
"Selye's argument was that tobacco was a form of stress relief," Petticrew told me. "But the tobacco industry preferred the argument that stress itself was a cause of cancer."
The use of scientists as authoritative voices to defend smoking is a well-established fact, but the degree to which these scientists specifically appealed to stress mechanisms wasn't very clear prior to Petticrew's 2011 report. In Selye's case, his relationship to the tobacco industry began in 1958 when he wrote to the American Tobacco Company seeking funding. Although this request was denied, the following year a lawyer tasked with defending tobacco companies against liability lawsuits enlisted Selye's help to show that statistical correlation between smoking and cancer was not indicative of causality.
Eight years later, in 1966, Selye was again contacted by industry lawyers representing major tobacco companies like Philip Morris and Lorillard, for which he prepared a report for $2,000 on similar topics. An internal memo sent between these lawyers acknowledged Selye's willingness to author a report on tobacco and stress, but needed guidance on what to write.
The lawyers agreed that the report "should comment on the unlikelihood of there being a mechanism by which smoking could cause cardiovascular disease" and perhaps comment on the stressful effect that antismoking messages have on the public. As Selye would later write in a Tobacco Institute pamphlet, ""It is frightening that no-one mentions the benefits of tobacco. I am sure that often more damage is done by creating, through well-meaning crusades of enlightenment, innumerable hypochondriacs."
Based on that internal 1966 memo, however, Selye had apparently proposed a five-point project "for advancing the concept that stress is related to disease, that 'deviation' of stress is necessary, and that smoking is an acceptable deviation."
Over the next decade, Selye grew even closer with the tobacco industry. He appeared at "scientific conferences" organized by the tobacco industry to promote the benefits of smoking, authored several reports that had language written by tobacco industry insiders, testified against antismoking legislation before the Canadian House of Commons Health Committee, and appeared in popular radio and television programs to convey the tobacco industry narrative.
At the height of his relationship with Big Tobacco, Selye was receiving $50,000 per year in "special projects" funding from the industry-backed Council for Tobacco Research to investigate the links between stress, disease and tobacco—equivalent to over $250,000 today. "I don't think Selye was completely naive about what he was doing," Petticrew said. "You're not getting that sort of money without knowing that you're supporting an industry which is trying to deceive the public."
By the time this lucrative three-year funding agreement with the Council for Tobacco Research ended in 1975, however, it appeared as though the tobacco industry's use for Selye was waning. In 1977, he solicited the major tobacco company RJ Reynolds for another $50,000 in funding to launch a $1 million campaign on coping with stress. This request was denied, but not because the tobacco industry was done with stress—the field had simply changed. According to Petticrew, by the 1970s stress researchers were increasingly abandoning Selye's general adaptation syndrome paradigm of biological stress responses. They were now focused on illuminating personality characteristics that demonstrated characteristic responses to environmental stressors—better known as Type A and Type B personalities.
At the height of his relationship with Big Tobacco, Selye was receiving $50,000 per year in "special projects" funding from the industry
"People started being quite critical of stress as being ill-defined so the interest in the link between psychological factors and chronic illness started to move into the direction of Type A behavior in the 1970s," Petticrew said. "The idea of stress causing heart disease started to become less attractive and it was replaced with the idea that it was this very specific type of stress response, Type A behavior."
Type A personalities tend to be high strung, experience a constant sense of urgency, and are easily angered. Starting in 1976, American stress researchers began to investigate whether this personality type could be an indicator of cardiac diseases and other chronic illnesses. Soon after this initial research was published, tobacco money began to flow in these researchers' direction.
According to Petticrew, Selye's link to the tobacco industry means that contemporary research into stress and disease must be viewed with a critical and suspicious eye. While it doesn't discredit all—or even most of—Selye's prolific career as a scientist (he had already made a name for himself establishing the basic qualities of biological stress responses before receiving tobacco money), it can be hard to disentangle the truth from the lie when it comes to stress and disease.
"The tobacco industry threw so much money at so many key researchers in the field," Petticrew said. "You just cannot read that literature today without considering the extent to which the science of stress has been tainted by tobacco industry money."
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