In February 2020, Rush Limbaugh announced he had been diagnosed with "advanced lung cancer," prompting widespread reflection on the controversial and influential conservative talk radio host's career, as well as renewed scrutiny of his past pronouncements.
In light of Limbaugh's lung cancer diagnosis, some of his detractors suggested that a measure of irony was at work, given his previous statements on smoking and nicotine. In particular, some social media users shared the following quotation, attributed to Limbaugh:
"There is no conclusive proof that nicotine’s addictive... And the same thing with cigarettes causing emphysema, lung cancer, heart disease."
The statement first emerged in 1994, when the left-leaning non-profit organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) published an in-depth examination of several dozen false and misleading claims made by Limbaugh on his radio and television shows, in his books, and elsewhere. The July/August edition of FAIR's newsletter Extra! contained a report with the headline "The Way Things Aren't — Rush Limbaugh Debates Reality."
In the "Weird Science" section of the eight-page article, FAIR highlighted the following claim, made by Limbaugh during the April 29, 1994, episode of his radio program "The Rush Limbaugh Show":
"There is no conclusive proof that nicotine's addictive...[or with] cigarettes causing emphysema, lung cancer, heart disease."
FAIR refuted those assertions as follows:
Nicotine’s addictiveness has been reported in medical literature since the turn of the century. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s 1988 report on nicotine addiction left no doubts on the subject; "Today the scientific base linking smoking to a number of chronic diseases is overwhelming, with a total of 50,000 studies from dozens of countries," states Encyclopedia Britannica's 1987 "Medical and Health Annual."
By that time, Limbaugh was already a leading conservative voice in American media, and his radio show was syndicated to hundreds of stations across the country. FAIR's exposé made a splash and garnered news coverage by major outlets including The Associated Press.
The lengthy magazine article later formed the basis for a book entitled "The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error," which was published in 1995 and debunked more than 100 of Limbaugh's falsehoods.
One of the book's authors, Steve Rendall, told Snopes the tape recordings he had made of Limbaugh's radio broadcasts during that era had not survived the intervening 26 years, and therefore could not be consulted. Similarly, we did not find any official transcript of the April 29, 1994, episode. (Limbaugh's website features an archive of thousands of recordings and transcripts of his shows, but it only stretches back to the year 2000).
However, Limbaugh effectively confirmed the authenticity of the quotation and reiterated the same point in a lengthy rebuttal of FAIR's article, which the organization itself printed. Limbaugh wrote (emphasis added):
My point, made over and over again in recent months, is that if nicotine is really a terrible drug then Congress should just call it a terrible drug and ban it outright. The fact is that nicotine’s addictiveness and whether or not it is a drug is, contrary to FAIR’s assertion, a source of tremendous controversy — so controversial that The Washington Post‘s lead editorial on July 2, 1994 dealt entirely with this issue. "[F]ood and drug commissioner David Kesslerhas begun an effort to determine whether nicotine-containing cigarettes meet the law’s definition of a drug. If they do, the Food and Drug Administration has the duty to regulate them if cigarettes are a drug, and if they can’t be shown in their present form to be safe and effective — which a drug would have to be in order to be sold, and which is not very likely — then what does the government do?"
In saying that "nicotine's addictiveness ... is ... a source of tremendous controversy," Limbaugh was effectively reiterating the claim that "there is no conclusive proof that nicotine's addictive." In his rebuttal, he also did not dispute in any way that FAIR's quoting of him was accurate.
So while we cannot consult the original audio recording or an official transcript to verify whether Limbaugh's exact wording was as FAIR presented it, we can confirm that FAIR gave a proper presentation of Limbaugh's views on that specific issue, because the radio host effectively restated them shortly afterwards, and never disputed the wording presented by FAIR.
Limbaugh's views on the addictiveness of nicotine have since changed. In a July 2004 episode of his radio show, he said nicotine was "the most addictive drug, substance, whatever, on the planet," but argued that it might have other health benefits. In September 2019, he again described nicotine as "the most addictive drug on earth," but argued in favor of electronic cigarettes on the basis that the liquids they use do not produce the carcinogens produced by traditional, combustible tobacco cigarettes.
Limbaugh himself was often photographed smoking cigars and earlier in life smoked cigarettes, though he said he quit the cigarette habit in the 1980s.