How Big Tobacco Shaped the 'Science Of Stress'

Cigarette companies wanted illness linked to stress, not smoking: expert

By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff

Posted Jul 13, 2014 5:04 PM CDT

(Newser) – A few 20th-century scientists gave birth to the modern notion of stress—and Big Tobacco got so excited that it swooped in and funded their research, NPR reports. It all started with endocrinologist Hens Selye, who in the 1930s subjected rats to stress and cut them open to reveal the negative effects on their inner organs. Then, in the 1950s, two cardiologists created the notion of the Type-A personality, saying high-stress living made people prone to disease and heart attacks. So why Big Tobacco's involvement? It wanted to promote the idea that stress, not tobacco, gave people heart attacks and cancer, according to medical expert Mark Petticrew.

"What's never really been appreciated is that the tobacco industry was a major funder and stimulant of research on stress," says Petticrew. He came to that conclusion after he and his colleagues looked through millions of tobacco-industry documents now available online. He says industry lawyers influenced Selye's later work and emphasized the link between Type A and heart disease (even though most studies have since refuted that). Meanwhile Big Tobacco promoted the notion that cigarettes were a great stress remedy, reports the Daily Beast. Now, years later, we know that Selye wasn't wrong about stress (especially chronic stress in childhood), but other scientists say stress can be a benefit, too. "Stress isn't always a bad thing," notes NPR. (Now see what's happened to all the money tobacco companies coughed up in lawsuits.)

A woman smokes a cigarette outside of a restaurant in this file photo.
A woman smokes a cigarette outside of a restaurant in this file photo.   (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
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