Big Tobacco Companies Covered Up Radiation Dangers From Smoking

Tobacco companies have covered up for 40 years the fact that cigarette smoke contains a dangerous radioactive substance that exposes heavy smokers to the radiation equivalent of having 300 chest X-rays a year.

Internal company records reveal that cigarette manufacturers knew that tobacco contained polonium-210 but avoided drawing public attention to the fact for fear of “waking a sleeping giant”.

Polonium-210 emits alpha radiation estimated to cause about 11,700 lung cancer deaths each year worldwide. Russian dissident and writer Alexander Litvinenko died after being poisoned with polonium-210 in 2006.

The polonium-210 in tobacco plants comes from high-phosphate fertilisers used on crops. The fertiliser is manufactured from rocks that contain radioisotopes such as polonium-210 (PO-210).
The radioactive substance is absorbed through the plant’s roots and deposited on its leaves. 

People who smoke one-and-a-half packets of cigarettes a day are exposed to as much radiation as they would receive from 300 chest X-rays a year, according to research.

New health warning labels such as “Cigarettes are a major source of radiation exposure” have been urged by the authors of a study published in this month’s American Journal of Public Health. 

“This wording would capitalise on public concern over radiation exposure and increase the impact of cigarette warning labels,” the Mayo Clinic and Stanford University authors say.

Quit Victoria executive director Fiona Sharkie said Australian tobacco companies were not legally obliged to reveal the levels of chemicals contained in cigarettes. This made it difficult to know exactly how damaging PO-210 was and meant it was impossible to know what effect it had on other poisons contained in cigarettes.

“It (PO-210) is obviously highly toxic and we applaud any efforts to publicise the dangers,” she said. “But the industry needs to be better regulated before we can support specific warnings.” 

Inhalation tests have shown that PO-210 is a cause of lung cancer in animals. It has also been estimated to be responsible for 1% of all US lung cancers, or 1600 deaths a year.

The US authors analysed 1500 internal tobacco company documents, finding that tobacco companies conducted scientific studies on removing polonium-210 from cigarettes but were unable to do so.  “Documents show that the major transnational cigarette manufacturers managed the potential public relations problem of PO-210 in cigarettes by avoiding any public attention to the issue.”

Second Hand Smoke Laces the AirPhilip Morris even decided not to publish internal research on polonium-210 which was more favourable to the tobacco industry than previous studies for fear of heightening public awareness of PO-210.

Urging his boss not to publish the results, one scientist wrote: “It has the potential of waking a sleeping giant.” Tobacco company lawyers played a key role in suppressing information about the research to protect the companies from litigation.

The journal authors, led by Monique Muggli, of the nicotine research program at the Mayo Clinic, say: “The internal debate, carried on for the better part of a decade, involved most cigarette manufacturers and pitted tobacco researchers against tobacco lawyers. The lawyers prevailed.

“Internal Philip Morris documents suggest that as long as the company could avoid having knowledge of biologically significant levels of PO-210 in its products, it could ignore PO-210 as a possible cause of lung cancer.”

Source: William Birnbauer,

1 thought on “Big Tobacco Companies Covered Up Radiation Dangers From Smoking

  1. Tom Dennen

    This was originally published in December, 2006 and more recently published on and various other posts.

    The significance is that no investigation has been leveled at the UK Health department from any official source.

    How do we go about making it happen?


    By Tom Dennen

    Polonium smoke warning ads pulled

    Two adverts warning cigarette smoke contains the radioactive substance that killed Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko has (sic) been pulled from a health campaign. BBC.

    The UK Health Department stated that it thought it “inappropriate” to show the ad, which shows cigarettes contain polonium 210.

    “Two adverts warning cigarette smoke contains the radioactive substance that killed Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko has (sic) been pulled from a health campaign, ” said the British news giant, BBC immediately after Litvinenko’s murder.

    The campaign also included posters and beer mats, it said.

    “Some mats, which were sent out early to pubs in the West Country, saying ‘Where do you find polonium? In cigarettes!’…Caused some concern locally, and have now also been withdrawn.”

    The Department of Health said it was “inappropriate” to run the ads that show cigarettes contain polonium 210, but did not explain what they meant by ‘inappropriate’.

    (A later announcement said, “The Department of Health has scrapped plans for a £50,000 TV ad revealing that cigarettes contain the radioactive poison polonium-210, the substance that killed Russian ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko, to spare his family’s feelings.”)

    They said that other adverts in the ‘Smoke is Poison’ campaign, funded by the Department of Health and backed by Cancer Research UK (Britain’s leading charity dedicated to cancer research), would air as planned.

    ‘Unforeseen events’

    In the campaign, award-winning Investigative Journalist Donal Macintyre interviews people who “may have been exposed to dangerous substances including formaldehyde and benzene” in a series of radio and television adverts.

    In the ads, MacIntyre asks people in various professions what they are doing to protect themselves.

    As the Docu-Journalist tells his interviewees that cigarettes contain the same chemicals their work involves them with, the camera records their quite genuine shock.

    Russel Hopps, a Manchester undertaker who features in one of the TV advertisements, said: “I was really shocked when I heard that formaldehyde is in cigarettes. In our business we wear goggles, a mask, thick gloves and an apron to protect our health while we are embalming. Taking part in the filming made me wonder just what other nasty chemicals are in cigarette smoke. I’ve been thinking about trying to quit for ages but this has made me decide to give up for good.”

    Smoke from cigarettes contains some 4,000 chemicals, 69 of which are known to cause cancer. But three quarters of people Macintyre surveyed in the campaign were not able to name a single chemical, other than nicotine and tar, which are listed on cigarette packs.

    Sara Hiom, deputy director of cancer information, said the decision to withhold the adverts focusing on polonium 210 was taken jointly with the Department of Health.

    “In light of recent unforeseen events and in consultation with the Department of Health, we took the decision not to air the polonium adverts at this time.”

    Advertising campaigns take several months from brief to broadcast. Obviously, the campaign had been planned, researched, written, ‘storyboarded’ and shot long before Mr. Litvinenko was killed.

    “Information about polonium in relation to the campaign does feature elsewhere, such as on the campaign website”

    Go look. It does mention Polonium 210 – once in a list at the bottom of a long discussion on the poisons in tobacco smoke, but no other ‘information’ about the substance is on the site at all.

    A Department of Health spokeswoman said, “When the Health Protection Agency confirmed that Mr. Litvinenko had died from Polonium 210 poisoning we began discussions about the content of the ‘Smoke is Poison’ campaign.

    “Because two of the five ads contained references to Polonium in cigarettes we took the decision with Cancer Research to withdraw these ads from this campaign.

    “The remaining ads have hard-hitting messages about the dangers of cigarette smoke and the poisonous substances it contains,” added the spokeswoman.

    Robert N. Proctor, a professor of the history of science at Stanford University, who is also mentioned in the New York Times and the local Weekend Witness makes this statement: “We should also recall that people smoke a lot of cigarettes — about 5.7 trillion worldwide every year, enough to make a continuous chain from the earth to the sun and back, with enough left over for a few side-trips to Mars. If .04 picocuries of polonium are inhaled with every cigarette, about a quarter of a curie of one of the world’s most radioactive poisons is inhaled along with the tar, nicotine and cyanide of all the world’s cigarettes smoked each year. Pack-and-a-half smokers are dosed to the tune of about 300 chest X-rays.”


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