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The Real History of 'Corporate Personhood': Meet the Man to Blame for Corporations Having More Rights Than You

The real history of today's excessive corporate power starts with a tobacco lawyer appointed to the Supreme Court.

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The story of the cigarette corporations and their response to public efforts to address addiction, smoking, and health is a big piece of the larger story of how corporate rights took such significant pieces of the Constitution and American democracy. The ideas expressed by Powell in his 1971 memorandum to the Chamber of Commerce came out of his personal involvement in the aggressive resistance of the cigarette corporations to efforts to address the devastating social and public costs of its lethal products. As a director and an executive committee member of Philip Morris, Powell shared responsibility for the fraudulent attack on the conclusions of scientists and the surgeon general by the cigarette industry and for its false insistence for years that “no proof” showed cigarettes to be unhealthy.

Hints of this work can be seen in the Philip Morris annual reports issued during Powell’s tenure as a director, which reflected the broader campaign of the company and the cigarette industry to discredit the science about smoking and health and to misrepresent the facts to keep people smoking and get young people to start. We now know, thanks to the 2007 findings of a federal judge, that many of the assertions in these annual reports were knowingly false. According to the reports themselves, these statements and others were made “on behalf of the Board of Directors,” including Powell:

• 1964: “The industry continues to support major research efforts directed towards resolving the many unanswered questions on smoking and health.”

• 1967: “The year 1967 was marked by an intensification of exaggerated claims made relative to the possible adverse health effects of smoking on health. ... We deplore the lack of objectivity in so important a controversy. ... Unfortunately the positive benefits of smoking which are so widely acknowledged are largely ignored by many reports linking cigarettes and health, and little attention is paid to the scientific reports which are favorable to smoking.”

• 1967: “We would again like to state that there is no biological proof that smoking is causally related to the diseases and conditions claimed to be statistically associated with smoking ... no proof that the tar and nicotine levels in smoke are significant in relation to health.”

• 1969:  “No biological or clinical proof that smoking is causally related to human disease ... serious doubt that smoking is a causative factor in heart disease.”

• 1970:  “Often the scientific information which is relied on to indict cigarette smoking is of dubious validity.”

Absent convincing evidence, it might be reckless to say that Philip Morris and the other tobacco corporations engaged in a willful, aggressive, wide-ranging conspiracy and racketeering enterprise so that the corporations could sell more products that kill people. But now that the evidence is in, we know that that is exactly what happened. We know this thanks to scientists, victims of the conspiracy, state attorneys general (both Democrats and Republicans), the United States Department of Justice (under both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush), and Judge Gladys Kessler and a panel of U.S. Court of Appeals judges appointed by Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George H. W. Bush.

In 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice took the cigarette corporations to trial, alleging that they had engaged in a racketeering conspiracy. Eighty-four witnesses testified in the nine-month trial, and hundreds of internal corporate secrets were finally exposed. When the verdict came in, Judge Kessler concluded that “overwhelming evidence” proved that the cigarette corporations “conspired together” to fraudulently deny that cigarettes caused cancer, emphysema, and a long list of other fatal diseases; to manipulate levels of highly addictive nicotine to keep people smoking; to market addictive cigarettes to children so that the corporations would have “replacement smokers” for those who quit or died; and that they “concealed evidence, destroyed documents, and abused the attorney-client privilege to prevent the public from knowing about the dangers of smoking and to protect the industry” from justice.