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The smoking gun of the Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher's relationship with the tobacco industry

I have to admit, I've not yet seen Meryl Streep's Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. But the chameleon actress who inhibits the skin of all of her characters has brought the life of the former British Prime Minister to a whole new generation of moviegoers who may not have been aware of Thatcher's reign over Great Britain from 1979 to 1990.

I recently came across a fascinating tidbit about Lady Thatcher when I sat with Stanford's Robert Jackler, MD, to record a podcast about his latest study on the tobacco industry marketing cigarettes with the assistance of the medical community. After the interview, Jackler and I continued to gab about the genius marketing efforts of tobacco since the 1920s - reaching Hollywood stars, tapping athletes and sporting events and involving a huge lobbying machine that kept tobacco golden for decades. Jackler mentioned he had seen the Streep film over the weekend, and it reminded him about what he discovered about Thatcher while perusing secret documents uncovered as part of the 1999 Master Settlement Agreement between the tobacco industry, 46 state governments and five U.S. territories.

Shortly after she left 10 Downing Street, in a deal brokered by her son, Mark, Britain's first woman prime minister became a shill for the tobacco industry, specifically Philip Morris. Jackler pointed me to a treasure trove of internal documents at the Legacy Foundation Documents Library detailing the Iron Lady's partnership with the American tobacco conglomerate.

The deal was sealed on November 10, 1992 when Philip Morris' General Counsel, Murray Bring, wrote Thatcher Foundation representative Robert Higdon pledging $750,000 to be split over three years beginning that year. Documents state that the contribution was just part of a larger financial arrangement that Philip Morris had with Thatcher:

Philip Morris Inter-Office Correspondence Date: September 30, 1991
To: Ms. Stephanie French (Vice President, Corporate Contributions)
From: Murray H. Bring

We are about to enter into a consulting arrangement with Mrs. Thatcher. It has been suggested by her representative, Mark Thatcher, that a portion of our fee should constitute an annual $250,000 grant to the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, which will be established in the U.S.

The memo continued:

Mark Thatcher advised me that the Foundation expects to be involved in a number of educational activities, and will also be heavily involved in environmental matters. He also indicated that we would be able to target our grant to specific Foundation projects which would be approved by us in advance.

Of course, Philip Morris' desire to use Thatcher's prominence to help gain access to world leaders and promote tobacco around the globe was never explicit, but the company's intent was clear, as evidenced by an internal memo between two Philip Morris executives in January 7, 1992, shortly after the partnership commenced:

Inter-Office Correspondence
To: Murray H. Bring
From: Charles R. Wall
Subject: Margaret Thatcher

Two thoughts on Margaret Thatcher.
1) Can she help the proposed Ad Ban Directive under wraps? I can check with Hugh or someone to check with our Brussels people.
2) Can she help with any Eastern European countries where we are in negotiations, etc. with the governments? I do not know enough to be more specific.

It's sad to think that peddling cigarettes around the world is one of the legacies of the woman who led Britain for more than a decade. Instead of Iron Lady, from now on I'll have to think of Thatcher more as a blackened lung.

Previously: Throat doctors manipulated by Big Tobacco, Early anti-smoking advocate: King James I of England? and NPR's Picture Show highlights Stanford collection of cigarette ads
Photo of Margaret Thatcher is U.S. Government Work

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