One of Vanderbilt University’s highest-profile administrators has quietly helped defend cigarette makers against lawsuits from sickened smokers for the past 15 years, according to a WPLN investigation.
John Geer, now dean of the College of Arts and Science, is among dozens of respected academics across the country who have been employed indirectly by tobacco companies. Few speak publicly or publish academic articles reflecting the positions they argue as expert witnesses.
In one deposition that was videotaped just off Vanderbilt's campus in October 2014, Geer stares straight ahead with an iced coffee at his side, reading glasses perched on his nose. A court reporter swears him in, and the founder of the Vanderbilt Poll commences to argue that smokers who started as pre-teens in the 1950s and 1960s knew their budding bad habit could kill them one day. He hangs much of his argument on a 1954 poll from Gallup, despite Gallup warning the tobacco industry not to use the results out of context.
“I have studied a lot of polls, and I’m confident of my opinion of the public being broadly aware of the dangers of smoking by the mid-1950s. The data are rock-solid clear,” Geer said in the 2014 deposition.
This argument fits into the tobacco industry's ongoing legal strategy to fend off hundreds of lawsuits, dubbed the "common knowledge" defense — that people have known since the '50s that smoking was bad for them and did it anyway. And to make their case, they employ professors as expert witnesses.
Most of the witnesses are not experts in the history of public health. Geer, for instance, specializes in political science and polling. He acknowledges in the 2014 deposition he’s never published any research on the topic of smoking.
Stanford University history professor Robert Proctor, who wrote a book about the tobacco industry called "Golden Holocaust," says that's because it would expose their thoughts to peer review.
"They erase history by acting as if the things we know today have always been known," he says.
Proctor is among the smaller society of academics who testify in opposition to tobacco companies on behalf of smokers dealing with cancer, chronic lung disease and heart problems.
In his book, Proctor lists the professors known to have worked on behalf of tobacco companies. Geer doesn’t appear on Proctor’s list. Proctor says most expert witnesses avoid drawing attention to themselves.
“Experts often don't even put it down on their CVs, their resumes, it's absent,” Proctor says. “That’s one of the problems. It’s flying under the radar."
Geer makes no mention of his consulting work — which he said in 2014 paid $300 an hour — in his 17-page curriculum vitae. That document does include a detailed account of his pursuits on- and off-campus, down to individual guest lectures and media appearances.
“It’s not relevant,” Geer tells Nashville attorney Kenneth Byrd in the deposition. “If I published something from this, I’d list it.”
Geer also refused to name any individual at Vanderbilt who knows about his consulting work, which he said has comprised 25 percent of his income in some years. He started this work in 2004, Geer says in his deposition. Court documents show he was active through at least mid-2018.
Byrd: "What people have you told the research you do?”
Geer: "Friends and colleagues.”
Byrd: "At Vanderbilt?"
Byrd: "Like who?"
Geer: "Well, I don't want to enmesh friends and stuff into this."
To satisfy university conflict of interest rules, Geer said he disclosed that he consults for the Kansas City law firm that pays him — Shook, Hardy & Bacon.
“They ask on a form who you do the consulting for, and since Shook, Hardy & Bacon writes the checks, that’s what I’ve put down,” he said. Asked why he hasn’t explained the nature of the work, Geer replied, “It’s never been asked.”
Vanderbilt’s conflict of interest policy states professors need to be “sufficiently detailed” about outside consulting so the university can decide if the work aligns with its mission. School officials declined to comment, citing a blanket policy not to talk about personnel matters.
Geer did not respond to multiple requests for interviews in recent weeks.
Interpreting The Polls
The most active expert witnesses for the tobacco industry are historians. They include the University of Tennessee’s Robert Norrell, Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman at Texas A&M and Michael Schaller of the University of Arizona, according to a database kept by Ramses Delafontaine.
Many cite the same Gallup poll from 1954 that indicates 90% of Americans had heard smoking could cause lung cancer.
But in 1998, Gallup told the tobacco industry to stop using this polling out of context. First, the company sent a letter to historian Lacy Ford at the University of South Carolina, who was one of the most productive expert witness for tobacco companies. Then Gallup officials presented a paper at a conference calling Ford’s interpretation an “egregious error” that overlooked the difference between being aware of danger and actually believing smoking is dangerous.
“A review of historical Gallup surveys suggests that there was, in fact, a high degree of public doubt and confusion about the dangers of smoking in the 1950s and 60s. There may have been widespread awareness of the controversy over smoking, but public belief that smoking was linked to lung cancer trailed far behind this general awareness of the controversy.”
Gallup points to its other surveys during the same period that found when people said smoking was “harmful,” they were thinking of less serious risks, like coughing, not cancer.
Reached for comment about the continued reliance on the 1954 poll, Gallup general counsel Steve O’Brien — who wrote that paper from 1998 — declined to wade back into the controversy.
“The fraternity that litigates these smoking cases are all aware of the history — or if they were doing their job right, they are,” O’Brien wrote in an email.
For his part, Geer said in 2014 he had never seen the letter to Ford or the Gallup paper, though both are publicly available as part of the Truth Tobacco Industry Documents, a database well-known to public health researchers where the University of California, San Francisco publishes internal tobacco company documents.
“I know of it broadly, but I’ve never spent any time on [the database],” Geer said, explaining why he did not see the memos while compiling his reports.
‘A Denial Of History’
In the 2014 case, Leslie Woodruff v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, et al., a widow in Florida argues that her husband's bladder cancer was caused by his smoking since he was a kid — as much as three packs a day. The case was ultimately settled for an undisclosed amount as part of a larger settlement.
The suit was one of thousands in Florida stemming from a former class-action verdict that was overturned but allowed many smokers to make individual claims using the same findings by the jury.
Tobacco companies win some and lose some. But the “common knowledge defense” has proven effective at limiting their liabilities, says Stanford’s Proctor. It’s difficult for a judge or jury to forget 65 years of science and mentally travel back in time.
"This is another world," he says of the 1950s.
Proctor points out that most doctors used to be smokers. Some cigarettes were even branded as “doctor recommended.” Proctor calls it “a denial of history” to gloss over how broadly smoking was accepted.
The handful of professors who help dying smokers — or their surviving spouses — refute the tobacco industry’s experts include historian Louis Kyriakoudes at Middle Tennessee State University. He’s published extensive research on smoking in the South and lists on his CV work as an expert witness against tobacco companies.
“I’m proud of what I do,” he says.
Kyriakoudes says he doesn’t fault professors who work on the other side. But he argues they have to put on “intellectual blinders” in the process.
“People tell themselves that it’s the smoker’s fault for smoking, and why should somebody be suing a tobacco company anyway?” he says. “That plays into a very strong bias that blames the victim of addiction.”