Philip J. Hilts, who as a science reporter for the New York Times in 1994 exposed a tobacco company’s decades-long concealment of its own research showing that tobacco was harmful and nicotine was addictive, died 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 was the author of six non-fiction 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 the executives of the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation were struggling to divulge to the surgeon general what they knew in 1963 about the dangers of smoking; their own research showed that cigarettes were addictive and caused or predisposed people to lung cancer.
Brown & Williamson executives, Mr. Hilts wrote, “chose to remain silent, to keep the results of their research secret, to stop working on a safer cigarette, and to pursue a legal and public relations strategy consisting in not admitting anything”.
Mr. Hilts’ article, on the front page of The Times, appeared a month after top executives of the seven largest US tobacco companies testified before Congress that nicotine is not addictive. Two years later, they were all under federal investigation for potentially lying under oath and were not anymore at the head of their businesses.
The Department of Justice eventually dropped his criminal investigation to find out if the rulers had perjured themselves. But in 1998, four tobacco companies and 46 states achieved what was the largest civil litigation settlement in American history, companies agreeing to pay states $206 billion over 25 years. Millions of internal company documents of the kind that Mr. Hilts and other news outlets had relied on were made public in the process.
Mr. Hilts has also published prominent articles on breast implants, contraceptives and deception in the cosmetics industry. He was among 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 up the confessions of a healer in Zambia who claimed to “cure” AIDS. And he examined a law enforcement practice of using hypnosis to “refresh” the memories of witnesses; his discoveries of hypnosis problems led to the release of four men from prison.
More recently, he held the position of Director of 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 misinformation campaign on tobacco; “Protecting America’s Health: The FDA, Business, and One 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 described how rich countries can help combat the threat of new, resurgent epidemics around the world.
Philip James Hilts was born on May 10, 1947 in Chicago. Her father, Edward, was a non-fiction writer who also wrote historical fiction for children. His mother, Katherine (Bonn) Hilts, worked at a Sears store in several departments, including as a switchboard operator.
Philip was one of seven children and grew up primarily in Hinsdale, Illinois, a suburb west of Chicago.
After high school, he served briefly in the Merchant Navy 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 countercultural movements were in full swing.
He returned to Georgetown in 1969 but never graduated, deciding instead to pursue journalism. He had short stints as a reporter and photographer at small suburban newspapers and at the Washington Daily News in Washington, DC, and the Rocky Mountain News in Denver before becoming a freelance magazine editor.
He joined the Washington Post as an editor in the 1980s, taking time off for a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard from 1984 to 1985. He moved to the Washington bureau of the Times in 1989 as an editor until 1996, when where he became a contract editor until 2002.
Mr. Hilts has received several journalism scholarships, including one that sent him to Botswana, where he taught journalism. Most of his fellowships were for scientific writing.
He married Mary Donna McKeown, a fellow reporter with the Washington Daily News, in 1974; she died in 1987. In 1993 he married Carisa Cunningham, who at the time was working for non-profit AIDS organizations; they divorced in 2011. He married Una MacDowell, who was a math and science education researcher, in 2013. They lived in Cambridge, Mass., and Rochester, Vt. He died in a palliative care facility.
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.
When he died, Mr. Hilts was finishing a book on Lynn Margulisa biologist whose research into the origin of cells helped transform the study of evolution, and who was once married to the astronomer Carl Sagan.