I Cannot Tell A Lie

REP. WYDEN: Let me ask you first, and I’d like to just go down the row, whether each of you believes that nicotine is not addictive. I’ve heard virtually all of you touch on it–yes or no, do you believe nicotine is not addictive?
WILLIAM I. CAMPBELL (Philip Morris): I believe that nicotine is not addictive, yes.
REP. WYDEN: Mr. Johnston…
JAMES JOHNSTON (RJReynolds): Uh, Congressman, cigarettes and nicotine clearly do not meet the classic definition of addiction. There is no intoxication–
REP. WYDEN: We’ll take that as a no. And again, time is short, if you can just, I think each of you believe nicotine is not addictive, I’d just like to have this for the record.
JOSEPH TADDEO (US Tobacco): “I don’t believe that nicotine or our products are addictive.”
ANDREW TISCH (P Lorillard): I believe that nicotine is not addictive.
EDWARD HORRIGAN (Ligget Group): I believe that nicotine is not addictive.
THOMAS SANDEFUR (Brown & Williamson): I believe that nicotine is not addictive.

DONALD JOHNSTON (American Tobacco Co.): And I too believe that nicotine is not addictive.

(Courtesy of Tobacco.org)

Referred to as the “The Seven Dwarfs,” seven tobacco executives stood before a congressional committee in 1994 and swore under oath that they did not believe nicotine to be addictive. Later, class action lawsuits found that not only did these executives know nicotine was addictive, but their companies were also searching for ways to make it more addictive.

One executive, James Johnston, attempted to qualify his answer by creating his own definition of “addiction.” The rest clearly state their belief that nicotine isn’t addictive without qualifiers. Why? The obvious answer is valid. It hurts their companies and it opens them up to liability with their customers. However, I think something else plays a role in this situation and others like it.

We recognize that words carry their own kind of power. On a personal level, do we try to harness the power of certain words, certain statements, to see how much power we can create for ourselves?

Promises, oaths, and guarantees are a still big deal. People still place their hand on the Bible and swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Businesses still offer 100% guarantees, even though they slip in an asterisk that directs you to the fine print. People, at least initially, still pay attention when you make a promise.

Consider how many politicians get in trouble, not for the act itself, but instead for the cover-up and the lies used to conceal the act. The guilty would rather get caught in a bold lie that compounds the consequences than simply take responsibility for the original sin. These word gamblers, rather than betting on cards or dice, risk everything on a smooth tongue and take the chance that they will be believed.

Words can outlive their original speaker. For some reason, we seem more careless with our words, we seem to place less value on what we say and what we write because there’s a sense we can replace it with something new. Reading and writing have gone from a rare skill to carelessly acquired habits. And now the ease with which we can share our words makes it easy to forget what can happen when we don’t have respect for their power.

The Seven Dwarfs won’t be the last public figures to be caught by their own words. However, I do wonder if we will care as much the next time it happens.


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April 2007
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