What Were We Smoking?
Written by Bwog Staff
We continue to respect our heritage/amorous affair with our mother-magazine, The Blue and White by posting each issue of the magazine online. The latest issue, available this week around campus, is sure to delight: the Sisyphean struggle of pulling off Bacchanal; a conversation with The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier; and a look at what Columbia’s need-aware policy means for international applicants. In this feature, senior editor Will Holt explores Columbia’s strange investment in and development of a supposedly safer cigarette. Forget that 20-foot ban and look back at the days when the university actively endorsed smoking.
On July 13, 1967, for just a few hours, it seemed that Columbia was about to trump the splitting of the atom: “a development of far-reaching importance which promises to benefit mankind” was announced by the President of Columbia University and the dean of its medical school. According to a statement released by CU News Office Director John Hastings that morning, this lofty “development” had something to do with “reducing the health hazard of cigarette smoking”—big news, considering that this was a time when Butler Library was filled with ashtrays.
Later that day at a major press conference, President Grayson Kirk and Dean H. Houston Merritt of the College of Physicians and Surgeons announced the invention of what, in Kirk’s words, “may well be a revolutionary cigarette filter.” The “Strickman filter”—named after its creator, an obscure New Jersey chemist named Robert Strickman—purportedly removed two-thirds of the tar and nicotine inhaled through traditional cigarette filters. Strickman, perhaps unsurprisingly, claimed that the filter made for a much safer cigarette without any loss of flavor.
Interestingly, the majority of the questions that arose in the weeks that followed weren’t so much about the invention as they were about the announcement itself. Why was a major research university, and not a tobacco firm, publicizing the Strickman filter? Furthermore, why hadn’t news of this supposedly groundbreaking invention come through the scientific community that was supposedly backing Strickman’s claims?
The press release of the Strickman filter was ill-timed—or, perhaps, perfectly timed, depending on how conniving you think the Columbia administration was at the time. Kirk and Merritt made their announcement the very same week that US Health, Education, and Welfare Secretary John W. Gardner gave his groundbreaking report to Congress on the health hazards of cigarette smoking (though the connection to lung cancer had been established since the 1940s). For a time, Columbia’s decision eclipsed Gardner’s address in the headlines, and Life magazine reported in July 1967 that cigarette stocks began to rise almost immediately after the announcement had been made. Over the next few months, the Strickman filter seemed to be popping up everywhere. An article titled “The New ‘Safe’ Cigarette Filter” even appeared in the November 1967 issue of Good Housekeeping with the rather quaint subheading, “What You Should Know About it and What Parents Should Tell their Children.” The Strickman filter started to feel like an “issues” talking point that one might see in sitcoms and comic books. One imagines Captain America warning kids about the dangers of cigarettes, telling them to “be safe and smoke a Strickman.”
But members of the press were already looking at Columbia’s announcement with a healthy dose of skepticism. Despite Kirk’s confident tone at the press conference, the test results concerning the filter’s efficacy were never as conclusive as its namesake had originally led the University to believe. Obvious from the start, Columbia was looking for a windfall. Some even saw the University’s endorsement as actively encouraging cigarette smoking at a time when its damaging effects were becoming better known. In the pages of Life, writer Albert Rosenfeld reported, “Many critics felt that Columbia’s announcement had given the misimpression that a completely safe filter had been developed”—which, given the scant and rather dubious test results that Strickman had offered the University, certainly wasn’t the case. One political cartoon from an issue of The Washington Post featured Kirk as a carnival barker on the steps of Low, replete with cap and gown. Another showed a Columbia athlete sprinting with a cigarette in his mouth, a trail of smoke billowing out behind him.
Others took issue with the fact that Columbia had apparently given in to egregious commercialism in an attempt to get itself out of the red, pointing to the fact that the announcement of this supposed scientific breakthrough had been made through a flashy press conference rather than the more traditional channel of peer-reviewed journal articles.
It became increasingly clear that both Columbia and Strickman had very little backing for their claims of a safer cigarette outside of the tests of a single independent laboratory in Midtown Manhattan. As the summer of 1967 wore on, several tobacco industry experts came forward with their own inconclusive results. Edwin P. Finch, president of the tobacco company Brown & Williamson, said, “In our testing, we found that the pressure drop required for significantly reduced tar delivery was so high that the filter was not practicable for use in the production of a smokable cigarette,” meaning that the smoker would have to breath in so slowly that he or she would hardly be smoking at all. The advertising agency McCann Erickson was much more succinct in its conclusion: the filter was simply “unreliable.”
Even if Strickman’s claims that the filter removed a great deal of tar and nicotine were correct, the scientific correlations tying cigarette smoking to lung cancer were still rather murky. The linkage had been well established since the 1950s, but the causal particulars remained unclear. According to then-US Surgeon General William H. Stewart, “The gaseous content of the smoke also constitutes a significant danger. Therefore, the reduction of tar and nicotine can never provide full protection.”
Before summer waned, Columbia was already burying its head in the sand. In August, Kirk announced that the University would have to “re-study” the efficacy of the filter before leasing the rights to any cigarette manufacturers. Furthermore, when the Senate Commerce Committee scheduled a series of hearings on safer cigarette smoking for August 23–25, Kirk refused to answer its request for testimony. Not long afterward, Wesley First, the head of University public relations and the man who had overseen the announcement of the Strickman filter back in July, was apparently fired for his mishandling of the affair.
According to the magazine Advertising Age, Columbia had asked tobacco companies for an advance of $2.5 million (about $17 million) within weeks of the initial press conference. Considering that the University was in the middle of a $200 million fundraising campaign to alleviate a crippling deficit, the figure isn’t all that staggering, but rather an embarrassing example of counting one’s chickens before they hatch. But the problem wasn’t money. What troubled critics was the question of whether it is in any way ethical for a university—an institution supposedly committed to free intellectual inquiry—to throw its weight and reputation behind something as controversial (and as hazardous) as cigarette smoking.
An October 1967 “The Talk of the Town” piece in The New Yorker provided neat summation of the affair: “We do not see an easy solution to [the financial plight of private universities] . . . but we are convinced that the type of private enterprise represented by the Columbia cigarette filter is not the solution.”
Months of administrative foot-dragging followed Kirk’s announcement in August about the need for further testing. By December, Columbia’s attorneys were sitting down with Strickman to rework the contact, ultimately trying to wash their hands of an affair that had exhausted University resources, time, and money. Meanwhile, the chemist was threatening a $100 million lawsuit against NBC after the network ran a news story reporting that Columbia’s tests of the filter were just as inconclusive as all the others.
Finally, on February 28, 1968, Columbia officially turned over the rights of the filter to Strickman, who later sold them to Imperial Tobacco of Canada. The University ultimately received only $370,000 from the chemist and his associates as reimbursement for its various expenditures on the project, including legal, laboratory, and patenting fees—nothing even close to the millions in yearly revenue that Kirk had expected from the filter back in July. The real cost, it seems, should have been measured not in dollars, but in reputation. Columbia had received a veritable beating from the press for months on end, while Strickman simply decided to pack up his goods and peddle them elsewhere. When anti-establishment sentiment was running high—thanks to national problems like the Vietnam war, and more local ones like the administration’s plan to wipe out half of Morningside Heights for a University gym—the Strickman affair constituted just another notch in the president’s jackass belt.