Accusations of “fake news” are all the rage now, with people often throwing around the term when they read an article that tells them something they don’t want to hear. But an entire industry called “product defense,” created years ago by the tobacco industry, uses falsehoods and misdirection to protect companies from bad media and regulatory scrutiny. The pharmaceutical industry is no stranger to these tactics.
Document archives have revealed how tobacco companies helped create and hone product defense strategies. In my years as a reporter and during a stint as an investigator for the U.S. Senate, I’ve seen them deployed by a range of industries.
I fell into this world back in 2005, while working as an editor for the news section of Environmental Science & Technology, the top journal in the field of environmental science. After spending weeks digging through the tobacco archive, I wrote a story about Steven J. Milloy, a columnist for FoxNews.com who ran a website called JunkScience.com and headed a shady organization called The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC). In a 1993 letter, the public relations firm APCO explained how it launched TASSC “to expand and assist Philip Morris in its efforts with issues in targeted states in 1994.”
While I never learned if Milloy had direct ties to pharmaceutical companies, he had published a book called “Silencing Science” that argued regulatory agencies like the Food and Drug Administration had “eliminated science from public policy.” Milloy was also one of the early defenders of Vioxx, arguing that a study that caused the drug to be withdrawn for increasing the risk of heart attacks was a “tremendous overreaction.”
My story linked to minutes of a meeting that TASCC had with Monsanto, as well as a letter Milloy wrote projecting that future goals of TASCC would be to sponsor forums on “sound science” at several science societies. Ironically, Milloy had come to my attention after he had been chosen as a judge for a journalism contest run by American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest science society.
My reporting led me to a fleet of industry-friendly scientists and writers who had the habit of pooh-poohing the potential dangers of products, dismissing studies finding possible harm, and attacking the FDA. Several websites that trafficked in this messaging caught my eye, especially the now-defunct Statistical Assessment Service (STATS). In several instances, STATS staffers had disparaged journalists at the Orlando Sentinel and the New York Times who reported on the potential dangers of opioids. Trevor Butterworth, a STATS editor, later wrote a report that attempted to downplay the bias of industry-funded studies that experts cite as one cause of the Vioxx scandal.
Another site, called Tech Central Station, ran columns that downplayed the possible dangers of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and climate change. Financial ties between tobacco and pharmaceutical companies weakened smoking cessation efforts, and the tobacco companies often sought to obscure their role in media campaigns by partnering with other industries to attack government regulation and independent research. Trying to understand what was happening, I began searching tobacco documents to try and pick up the money trail.
In a tobacco company’s budget, a line item for Steven J. Milloy showed that he was on the tobacco payroll while also writing columns that disparaged the science of secondhand smoke, a story I later reported for the New Republic.
As a way to defend industry from government regulation, corporate advocates routinely referred to studies published in Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, the official journal of the International Society of Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology. On the journal’s website, I was somehow admitted to the society’s member’s only section. While scanning the minutes of its meetings, I noted that they were held in the offices of a law firm that defended companies from scrutiny by the FDA. Many members of the journal’s board had strong ties to the tobacco, pharmaceutical, and agrochemical industry. Indeed, a recent study of the journal called into question the many dubious papers it has published on tobacco.
Seeking a change from journalism, I took a job with the U.S. Senate, running investigations of corruption in medicine. I learned that the players and tactics there were quite similar to those in the tobacco industry. One of my first jobs was leading the Finance Committee’s investigation of Avandia, a diabetes drug sold by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) that a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found to be associated with cardiac events. In Zelig-like fashion, both Milloy and Butterworth magically appeared, with Milloy dismissing the NEJM study as a “statistical fantasy” and Butterworth writing a muddled column that sought to characterize the congressional investigations as a “partisan slugfest.”
A study commissioned by the FDA later found that Avandia likely led to more than 50,000 Americans dying or having strokes or other cardiac events. After the committee released the report I wrote on Avandia, which found that the company likely knew the drug was dangerous and had spent years attacking independent researchers who questioned Avandia’s safety, UBS analysts wrote that GSK likely faced up to $6 billion in legal liability.
Congressional investigators often work closely with investigative reporters at major news outlets. In 2009, I got a call from a reporter at the Milwaukee-Journal Sentinel asking if I knew anything about STATS, which had been attacking the newspaper’s award-winning reporting on plastics. I told them that I had tracked STATS for years and saw them as an industry-funded disinformation campaign. I then pointed the reporter in the direction of STATS’s tax forms and an affiliated nonprofit called the Center for Media and Public Affairs, and suggested they look through the tobacco documents.
Months later, the paper rolled out an investigation of STATS, noting that the Center for Media and Public Affairs had provided media monitoring for tobacco companies and that STATS acted as a stealth public relations defender of the plastics industry.
After organizations like these have existed for a while, they often morph into something new. The URL for the STATS website now takes you to Sense About Science USA, which is headed up by Butterworth. Started some years ago in London, this organization now lobbies on EU policy in Brussels and seeks to train medical journalists on the proper use of statistics.
As for Tech Central Station, the website that caught my eye many years back? BuzzFeed reported that it had been operated by the DCI Group, a public relations firm as part of its campaign on behalf of Exxon Mobil to confuse the public and reporters on the science of climate change. Several Tech Central stories provided fawning coverage for what has been reported to be another sponsor of the site, Gilead Sciences (GILD) — the makers of Tamiflu and drugs to treat HIV and hepatitis B and C.
The DCI Group’s founders began their careers running a campaign for tobacco called the smoker’s rights movement, which sought to reframe public health concerns over secondhand smoke as a matter of personal choice and freedom. The DCI Group also helped block bills to permit the reimportation of FDA approved drugs. Turing Pharmaceuticals hired DCI to help CEO Martin Shkreli when he came under legal scrutiny for high drug prices and securities fraud.
I explained many of these tactics to Robby Kenner when he was shooting “Merchants of Doubt,” a documentary on corporate disinformation campaigns. The pharmaceutical industry doesn’t need to design a new strategy to confuse the public or beat back the FDA, I explained, because tobacco created the playbook that most industries now follow.
And so the creation of fake news, or product defense, rolls on. To learn more about it, Island Press, in partnership with the Security and Sustainability Forum, is offering a free webinar on the topic on Wednesday, Jan. 31. It features veteran journalist Carey Gillam, research director for the nonprofit U.S. Right to Know and author of “Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science.”
Paul D. Thacker, a former investigator for the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, is a writer living in Spain.
Correction: Three sentences were deleted from this article because of an unsupported statement about the origin of the Genetic Literacy Project (founder Jon Entine says he created it independently) and an editing error that made it appear the organization has received funding from Monsanto.