Philippe Boucher's Rendez-vous with . . . Gene Borio
Webmaster of www.tobacco.org
Rendez-vous with . . . Gene Borio
New York , NY , USA
By Philippe Boucher
Thursday, April 26 , 2001
PB: Thank you Gene for accepting our rendez-vous.
May I ask you to introduce yourself?
Gene Borio : I am the webmaster of tobacco.org, nee Tobacco BBS, which amalgamates tobacco news from around the world daily--hourly, actually.
I finally succeeded in quitting smoking in the mid-80s, after 9 major tries over 20 years, and with the help of Al Perlman at the NYC ACS stop-smoking clinic. I became interested in the subject, started researching, and soon it seemed to me that either one of two things was happening:
1. We had on our hands an addictive, deadly drug being sold to kids through retailers in every home town in America, which was killing 400,000 people a year. This would be, of course, big news.Either way, the tobacco story was big news--really big.
2. We had on our hands a vast conspiracy by the entire scientific and health communities from ward nurse to surgeon general. These dastardly do-gooders--this astoundingly monolithic cabal--had somehow picked on one product above all others to unfairly beleaguer as "unhealthy"-- a product that is used by 50 million citizens, is the source of billions of dollars in revenues and taxes, is thoroughly entrenched in the country's history, economics and culture, and is controlled by an industry with an unparalled amount of clout in the hallways of power. (You'd think they could have picked an easier target.) This scenario would be big news too; any newspaper would give its right column for such a story.
And yet--where was the news? I hardly saw anything in the newspapers or magazines about tobacco. People talked about it every day--but there was very little information available about what was really happening.
Even tobacco control organizations in those days gave the normal citizen only brochure-level answers. If you tried for anything deeper, you ran into the paranoia that characterized the movement then.
I wanted to change that. I wanted the news out in the open, and accessible for all.
As I entered into discussions in the early online world, it astounded me how flat-out ignorant most people were about the issue. A seemingly literate person would aver that if a smoker didn't take one puff and drop dead in the street from lung cancer right then and there, then there was no health threat (this was an actual posting). We were abysmally ignorant.
Today, of course, people feel they've always known various things about tobacco--that it's addictive, cancerous, etc.. We forget how ignorant we were. Like a 5-year-old who ridicules Mr. Rogers, we've forgotten that time when we first were learning the important things he had to teach us.
Why were we so ignorant?
Because newspapers and magazines had cut off tobacco coverage so as not to offend their advertisers. It was no longer in the realm of public discourse. And by the time tobacco ads were dropped from newspapers, the taboo had gone on so long that editors and readers were inured, and considered it a non-subject.
After all, if the media screamed at us to beware of radioactive alarm clocks, sharks, pit bulls, and overhead power lines, and yet said nothing about tobacco--how dangerous could it be? We depend on the media to help filter real threats from minor ones for us, to let us know what we should be concerned about. If three people died of pit bull attacks a year --reported in 72-point type-- how much more coverage should we see if it were really true that 400,000 were dying a year from one of the country's major products?
It was such an arcane, underground field of inquiry then! When people heard that I tracked tobacco news, they would often react as if I'd told them I painted my fingernail clippings, or counted angels on pinheads. "Huh?? But-- why??"
This strange inoculation against tobacco as a major issue only fueled my interest, as if tobacco had silently become our own Brave New World's soma, our universal, societally approved drug. And it had become so--and continued to work its myriad wiles with us--completely without our overt knowledge. (But then, as Burson Marsteller tell you, advertising and attitude manipulation work best when the subjects don't know about it.)
I began to admire the very few writers and outlets that dared to cover the subject: Meyer Levin at the LA Times, Morton Mintz and Jon Schwarz at the Washington Post, Chip Jones at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
I began posting online summaries of whatever tiny news gleanings I could find in the mainstream press. These tidbits were infrequent and hard to find, and I wanted to save others the trouble of searching them out.
I had only begun my searches, but I knew even then that tobacco was one wildly complex, thorny issue, the Laocoon and the Hydra and the Gordian knot all wrapped up in one chimerical conundrum. I knew we were in for a ride with myriad hair-raising ups and downs, before some sort of rapprochement would ever be reached--in 20-50 years, I figured. But I also knew that whatever solution would eventually be found, we'd never find it unless we had accurate information about the subject. I wanted to at least get us all on the same page.
I soon began compiling regular weekly news summaries, and eventually established the Tobacco BBS (Electronic Bulletin Board System), an early means of providing information to anyone who called in to my computer.
The BBS was eventually replaced by the tobacco.org website in 1995. Soon, through Dave Cundiff, I met Jack Cannon online, and began carrying on the great "enews" tradition that Jack had created, reaching a larger audience of tobacco control people. In the late 90s, Michael Tacelosky and I started working closely together to facilitate the gathering and dissemination of tobacco news.
Q1. Why tobacco.org?
GB: Though I was an early adopter, tobacco.com was already secured by someone else. I was offered the domain name recently, for only $250,000.
In the late 80s-early 90s, I felt like a beggar, scrabbling in the dirt for every penny of tobacco news. The problem was _finding_ the news. Then, in 1994, the Fort Knox of tobacco news reporting was broken wide open by, in quick succession, ABC's "Day One," the FDA investigations, and the Waxman hearings. I suddenly felt like a robber running madly down the street with thousand-dollar bills streaming behind me, and no time to pick them up. The problem became _managing_ the news.
That's when tobacco.org's focus shifted to helping people save time sorting through the deluge of information--helping them find just the specific items they need for their work.
Q2. How tobacco.org? how do you select the news? do you use search engines? how long does it take? do you work alone? every day? what about burnout? what about money?
GB: I have a list of about 100 sites -- newspapers, search engines, etc. -- that must be visited each day. Tac has developed a database and system that helps organize and facilitate this process, but it is still time-consuming. A 10-hour day is about average on the weekdays; weekends are much less.
I'm astounded I don't get burnout. I've always been interested in drugs, and this one is endlessly fascinating to me. There are times I feel close to burnout, but I seem to have a near-limitless capacity to be entertained by the twists and turns, the white-knuckle roller-coaster ride of this remarkable story.
I funded my own activities out of my computer work and savings for 10 years. It got rough. I would receive small contributions from terrific people with no more to spare than I had. I well remember my first significant donation of $250 from the wonderful folks at Americans for Non-Smokers' Rights! I had to turn down a couple of major contributions from the industry. When I was on the brink of having to abandon TBBS in 1999, Tac chipped in hugely to support the work. In 2000 the ALF picked up support, and now we are to receive funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Q3. Among the hundreds, thousands of news you process, can you discern trends? do you recall turning points, milestones or is the flow always pushing you forward, quickly burying the news in the archives?
GB: Sous le deluge, moi!.
The 1994 Waxman hearings can now be seen as THE turning point of the modern era. As with the Cipollone trial, which first released secret documents in 1988, I don't think anyone at the time really appreciated what an impact those executives' statements would have over time.
I happened to be in an elevator on 57th St. that morning, reading the story in the New York Times. The paper featured the now-famous picture of the 7 execs holding up their right hands, and a headline or cutout that referenced their "I believe that nicotine is not addicting" mantra. Suddenly, the woman next to me blurted out, "Oh, that's ridiculous! I'm a smoker, and I tell you, it is so addicting!" While I found the outburst a bit shocking, I had no idea how many people across the country were feeling that same fury.
The other major turning points were the unearthing of secret documents--for which we may deeply thank Merrel Williams and the state of Minnesota, though the documents' true impact has only begun to filter out into society.
Q4 . Who uses tobacco.org? do you know how many people come and visit? how many are regulars? how many very regular/daily users? Do you get feedback from your users or do they remain mostly silent? Are they using the possibility to comment you provided (when?) a while ago?
GB: We have a little over 1200 MyNews subscribers, mostly people from the health orgs, state DOHs, etc., though many of the first subscribers were tobacco industry employees.
We get an average of about 1500 unique visits a day.
Most users seem too busy to chit-chat, though I do get those, "I just discovered your site!" messages. I think most regular users know what the situation is. I regularly meet people who tell me they've been using the site every day for years.
I often put aside messages to answer later, which is a mistake, because once it's not in front of my face, it's gone, despite my best intentions. So I'd like to apologize here and now to those I never got back to(!) If you still need an answer, please remind me.
The "Comments" are a bit problematic. They are meant for hard info, or unique comments from the participants in the stories. Many people approach them as if they were a discussion board.
Q5. What is next? How do you envision the future of tobacco.org? are you working on new features, new services? Any wishes?
GB: I wish we could develop TBBS into an actual news-gathering organization. The tobacco control community has that capability. For example, when the Attorneys General were meeting in New York City, it killed me that I, or _someone_ wasn't out there with a digital camera, grilling the participants every morning and afternoon. Certainly no news org did this, but _we_ have the interest, and the motivation to get people on record. The protests at shareholder meetings are always given short shrift by the mainstream media. We could do it so much better. And look at the valuable contributions of people like yourself and Stan Shatenstein. I'd love to help encourage and disseminate the movement's broad range of unique voices.
Q6. Is there anything else you would like to add?
GB: I've traditionally been fatalistic about being able to control this drug--it is so addicting, and provides its manufacturers with "more money than God," as one exec said, which can be used to influence any chosen sector of society. I've long felt that the only way a real ending would come is with a nicotine vaccine. Someone who wants to quit would then take a pill, and nicotine would no longer be able to impose its addictive sway on the brain and body. Then, at last, smoking would really be a choice--and people would no more choose to smoke tobacco than they choose to smoke lettuce cigarettes.
And yet--as we see society as a whole mobilize around the issue now, as we see the message getting through with full societal support--as should have happened 50 years ago--who knows, it may just work
PB: Thank you Gene for taking the time to be with us today.
Rendez-vous is supported by a contract from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
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