TYLER, Texas -- The tobacco industry has a lot of legal worries these days. But few of them are bigger than a 6-foot-5 physician named Gary L. Huber, who says he was bamboozled by the cigarette companies that financed his research.
Now he is prepared to pay them back, and then some.
Since August, the lanky, 58-year-old former college basketball player has emerged as that surprisingly rare character: the tobacco industry whistle-blower. Huber has become a central witness in Texas' lawsuit against the tobacco companies, and his quiet life as a diet doctor, health columnist and soccer dad in this town on the edge of the East Texas oil fields has been transformed.
His story suggests why, of the thousands of people who have worked for the big U.S. tobacco companies, only a dozen or so have surfaced publicly to testify against the industry. Cigarette makers have protected themselves by providing financial rewards for loyalty and legal trouble for defectors. And switching sides in the tobacco wars can be simply embarrassing, when a researcher has to explain why his views have suddenly changed.
Huber says that it was seeing previously secret tobacco industry documents this year that turned him against his longtime benefactors.
"My revelation over the past year, my road to Damascus, was finding out what they knew," Huber says. "They clearly knew smoking caused lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema. They knew it was addictive, and they knew it in the 1950s. They spent hundreds of millions of dollars on disinformation. And we spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to find out what they already knew."
By now, that's a familiar set of charges. But they have special force coming from a researcher long considered an industry friend. For added piquancy, Huber says tobacco industry lawyers have hinted that he should purge his files and tried to intimidate him into declining to testify.
If there is an undertone of repentance in Huber's fury, some in the anti-smoking ranks suggest that he has a lot to repent for. A pulmonary specialist, he took millions of tobacco research dollars over many years -- first as head of a major smoking research project at Harvard University; then in a brief and stormy tenure running a University of Kentucky tobacco and health institute financed by a cigarette tax; and with at least $1.4 million from two tobacco law firms over a decade after he moved to the University of Texas in 1985.
In a 1980 presentation to Philip Morris executives, 16 years after the surgeon general's landmark report on smoking and health, Huber minimized the hazards, accusing anti-smoking scientists of "deceit" and "distortion." He said only a "small minority" of smokers develop disease, and went further:
"At considerable risk of being harpooned by my colleagues in the scientific community, I am not afraid to ask, additionally, 'Is smoking beneficial to your health?' I believe that for some individuals, it may be beneficial."
Later, in articles widely cited by the tobacco companies, Huber declared that the dangers of secondhand smoke had been greatly exaggerated. His 1990 testimony on that topic in Australia, which he says he gave only under subpoena, was treated skeptically by the judge, who declared him "the least impressive" of the industry witnesses.
"Huber was generally thought of as one of the collection of scientists that the industry had lavishly funded over the years, so that they could trot them out on occasion to make favorable scientific statements," says Richard Daynard, director of the Tobacco Products Liability Project and longtime legal strategist for anti-smoking forces.
Huber admits that he was "naive beyond comprehension" but denies that he ever consciously distorted his scientific views to suit the industry. He insists that the tobacco money never directly increased his salary, though it sometimes freed him from other duties. Moreover, the work he directed at Harvard began at a time when tobacco money was not yet anathema among health researchers and was reviewed by a university panel to prevent industry influence.
Later, in Texas, Huber admits that he might have become a little too fond of the consulting money, which financed the scientific reading he loves. He says he regrets accepting industry funds, some of which he belatedly understands to have been hush money. He says that's why industry lawyers insisted on writing checks directly to him at Harvard and in Texas and having him sign the checks over to university programs.
Huber says he got "snookered, and snookered very badly."
Now, of course, the tobacco industry says it's the one getting snookered. Huber's agreements with the two tobacco law firms to review medical literature from 1985 to 1996 made him a "confidential consultant" who has no business consorting with the enemy, industry lawyers say.
Such contracts are a tactic the industry routinely uses to keep allies loyal -- and potential adversaries silent, Daynard says. "Everybody who's worked with the industry has been tied up in contractual knots. I think the purpose is more than to shut people up. It's to keep people feeling well-inclined toward the industry."
R. J. Reynolds Tobacco spokeswoman Peggy Carter says that's "poppycock." "We have never retained, and never intend to retain, an expert to keep someone else from doing so," Carter says. "It's clear that the absence of so-called whistle-blowers is testimony of our employees' firsthand knowledge of just how false the allegations made about us truly are."
Yet a score of lawyers for Reynolds and the other tobacco companies have worked to frustrate Huber's attempt to testify in the Texas lawsuit, which was scheduled for trial last month but has been delayed indefinitely by the judge's prostate cancer. They succeeded in getting the transcript of Huber's six-hour deposition Sept. 20 sealed for now.
But Huber's lips have not been sealed. He seems energized by his local celebrity status and provoked by the industry's attempts to silence him.
For weeks, his home answering machine overflowed with messages from lawyers -- lawyers for Texas, urging him to tell all; and industry lawyers, some of them old acquaintances, trying to persuade him to shut up. He's heard from people he hasn't seen in years, who say they have been contacted by tobacco industry investigators seeking to discredit him.
Huber has hidden in his handsome house in a leafy Tyler neighborhood while local television cameras parked outside. He has been the subject of embarrassing news reports as inquiries into the financial arrangement between the tobacco law firms, the University of Texas and Huber's Texas Nutrition Institute revealed a tangle of secret accounts and missing records.
Huber has taped his phone calls for weeks, turning some tapes over to the court. Fearing someone might steal his tobacco files, he and his 8-year-old son, John, packed documents scattered in his attic and garage into 197 boxes and turned them over to the federal court for safekeeping.
If Huber sounds, by his own admission, "a little paranoid," the experience of others who have turned on big tobacco might justify a touch of fear.
"Their potential for invading your life is very real," says Victor J. DeNoble, 47, a former Philip Morris psychologist who tried to go public with nicotine research after the company closed his in-house lab in 1984. DeNoble says investigators photographed him at a scientific meeting, interviewed high school acquaintances and even checked his tastes in movies with his local video store.
Huber knows he has infuriated the tobacco companies and expects the same treatment.
He says Robert McDermott of Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue called him and, in a threatening tone, suggested his actions would bring "the full weight and power of Jones, Day and its client" -- R. J. Reynolds -- down on him. He says Tony Andrade, an attorney with Shook, Hardy & Bacon, advised him there would be "nothing wrong" with removing from his tobacco files documents he no longer needed, a suggestion he considered improper.
The law firms -- the same two that paid him for a decade -- issued statements flatly denying Huber's accusations. "When all the facts are known, it will be abundantly clear that there was no impropriety in any dealings with Dr. Huber," said the statement from Shook, Hardy & Bacon.
What makes Huber potentially a powerful plaintiffs' witness is his longtime status as a trusted tobacco insider.
He was close to the late David R. Hardy, a legendary Kansas City, Mo., tobacco lawyer who played a central role in the 1970s in drafting the industry's long-term legal strategy. Huber recalls undergoing Hardy's mock cross-examination in a deserted courtroom and hearing him plot how warning labels on cigarette packs would defuse smokers' lawsuits.
Huber worked closely with Alexander W. Spears, now chief executive of Lorillard Tobacco Co., a sponsor of the Harvard project, in studying the effects of cigarettes with elevated nicotine. "Spears supplied us with cigarettes that had eight times the normal level of nicotine," Huber says.
Huber's transformation into a prosecution witness began early last year. Ronald Motley, a Charleston, S.C., attorney who represents Texas and many other states against the tobacco industry, filed a formal request with the University of Texas for all tobacco-related documents in Huber's possession.
That request was denied, but Motley courted Huber, chiefly by sharing with him industry documents suggesting a cover-up. In August, just as Huber, his wife, Mary, and their three young children were about to depart for vacation, Motley called to urge him to go to South Carolina to review more documents.
When Huber demurred, Motley sent his private jet to Texas to bring the whole family to Charleston. Huber spent several days reviewing tobacco documents as the rest of the family played on a nearby beach.
A 1974 memo written by Lorillard's Spears suggested that the industry sponsored Huber's Harvard project not to advance scientific knowledge but for "public relations, political relations, position for litigation, etc."
Other papers showed that in the 1960s, industry researchers had produced emphysema in laboratory animals by exposing them to smoke -- but failed to disclose the results to Huber, who was working on similar issues. "Omission can be just as great a lie as a lie by design," he says.
He also became convinced that the industry ended the Harvard funding in 1980 because Huber's team was "getting too close" to devastating research findings.
"They funded the Harvard project, which focused on emphysema, knowing full well what the results would be," Huber says. "Then when the results came in, they shut the project down and denied to the world that it existed."
Huber says he expects that if the tobacco companies fail to keep him from testifying, they will to try to smear his reputation. But he says he was hardened by the public calumny he faced in Kentucky, where his foes accused him falsely of everything from financial improprieties to sexual perversion.
"I don't care what they say. You put anyone under a dissecting microscope and they'll find faults. But this is about something a lot more significant than me."
Pub Date: 11/17/97