Pattern Matching

What Big Tobacco’s Fall Tells Us About Big Tech’s Future

Taking on a powerful industry takes time — and a truly outraged public

Will Oremus
Published in
8 min readJul 31, 2020


Photo: Pool/Getty Images

Welcome back to Pattern Matching, OneZero’s weekly newsletter that puts the week’s most compelling tech stories in context.

On April 14, 1994, the CEOs of the seven big American tobacco firms sat side by side, facing a Congressional subcommittee hearing on their products’ health impacts. Rep. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, asked them one by one to answer a simple question: Do you believe nicotine is not addictive? All seven, under oath, confirmed that they did not believe nicotine was addictive (video). The executives acknowledged that they manipulated nicotine levels in their products, but said it was to improve their flavor, not keep users hooked.

The hearing marked a turning point in the industry’s history. Up to that point, Big Tobacco had seemed untouchable politically at the federal level thanks to its cozy relationship with the GOP. But public opinion gradually turned against it as the industry continued to deny what had become plain to see: that its products were deadly, that it knew they were deadly, and that it marketed them to young people anyway.