Philip J. Hilts, who as a science reporter for The New York Times in 1994 exposed a tobacco company’s decades-long cover-up of its own research showing that tobacco was harmful and nicotine addictive, died on April 23. in Lebanon, NH He was 74 years old.
The cause was complications from liver disease, his son Ben said.
Mr. Hilts was a longtime journalist, writing for The Times, The Washington Post, and other publications, and the author of six nonfiction books on scientific, medical, and social topics.
His work on tobacco made headlines not only in The Times but also across the country. In 1994, he obtained internal documents showing that executives at Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation were struggling to reveal to the surgeon general what they knew in 1963 about the dangers of smoking; his own research showed that cigarettes were addictive and caused or predisposed people to lung cancer.
Executives at Brown & Williamson, Hilts wrote, “chose to remain silent, keep the results of their investigation secret, stop working on a safer cigarette, and pursue a public relations and legal strategy of admitting nothing.”
Hilts’ article, on the front page of The Times, appeared a month after top executives from America’s seven largest tobacco companies testified to Congress that nicotine was not addictive. Two years later, they were all under federal investigation for potentially lying under oath and no longer running their companies.
The Justice Department ultimately dropped its criminal investigation into whether the executives had perjured themselves. But in 1998, four tobacco companies and 46 states reached what was the largest civil litigation settlement in US history, with the companies agreeing to pay the states $206 billion over 25 years. In the process, millions of internal company documents of the kind relied on by Hilts and other news organizations were made public.
Mr. Hilts also revealed major stories about breast implants, contraceptives, and scams in the cosmetic device industry. He was one of the first reporters to cover the AIDS epidemic.
An adventurous guy, he was a diver and a world traveler, he wrote a dispatch from an active volcano a mile below the Pacific Ocean. He covered the confessions of a medicine man in Zambia who claimed to be “curing” AIDS. And he examined a police practice of using hypnosis to “refresh” witnesses’ memories; his findings of problems with hypnosis led to the release of four men from prison.
Most recently, he served as director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 2008 to 2014.
His books include “Smokescreen: The Truth Behind the Tobacco Industry Cover-Up” (1996), which examined the industry’s 40-year disinformation campaign on smoking; “Protecting America’s Health: The FDA, Business, and a Hundred Years of Regulation” (2003), a history of the Food and Drug Administration; and “Rx for Survival: Why We Must Rise to the Global Health Challenge” (2005), in which he outlined how wealthy nations can help combat the threat of new disease outbreaks resurfacing around the world.
Philip James Hilts was born on May 10, 1947 in Chicago. His father, Edward, was a nonfiction writer who also wrote historical fiction for children. His mother, Katherine (Bonn) Hilts, worked at a Sears store in various departments, including as a telephone operator.
Philip was one of seven children and grew up primarily in Hinsdale, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago.
After high school, he briefly served in the Merchant Marine before attending Georgetown University in Washington from 1965 to 1967. He then dropped out and hitchhiked to San Francisco to participate in the “Summer of Love,” when the hippie and counterculture movements were at their peak. full bloom.
He returned to Georgetown in 1969, but never graduated and decided to pursue journalism. He had brief stints as a reporter and photographer for small suburban newspapers and The Washington Daily News in Washington, DC, and The Rocky Mountain News in Denver before becoming a freelance magazine writer.
He joined The Washington Post as a staff writer in the 1980s and took time off for a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard between 1984 and 1985. He moved to The Times Washington bureau in 1989 as a staff writer until 1996. , when he became a contract writer until 2002.
Mr. Hilts received several journalism scholarships, including one that sent him to Botswana, where he taught journalism. Most of his fellowships were devoted to scientific writing.
He married Mary Donna McKeown, a fellow reporter for The Washington Daily News, in 1974; she died in 1987. In 1993, he married Carisa Cunningham, who at the time worked for AIDS nonprofits; they divorced in 2011. He married Una MacDowell, who was a researcher in mathematics and science education, in 2013. They lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Rochester, Vermont. he died in a hospital.
In addition to his wife and son Ben, he is survived by another son, Sean; two daughters, Alexis and Kate Hilts; A grandson; four brothers, Edward, Paul, Michael and Mark; two sisters, Jeanne Young and Elizabeth Hilts; and two children from his wife’s first marriage, William and Nora MacDowell Coon.
At his death, Hilts was finishing a book on Lynn Margulis, a biologist whose research on the origin of cells helped transform the study of evolution and who was briefly married to astronomer Carl Sagan.