Following the junk science money trail

One last installment in the saga of Big Tobacco and the war on science

Published June 5, 2008 4:58PM (EDT)

One last plunge into the Big Tobacco and "junk science" breach.

Part I of this series exclaimed over the connection between Steve "Junk Science" Milloy and the campaign to defame Rachel Carson's legacy. Part II further explored the incestuous relationship between Big Tobacco and Roger Bate, who was for a time a European-based crusader against overzealous public health regulation.

The backstory here is a recent Prospect article by John Quiggin and Tim Lambert that declared, among other things, that "Tobacco companies created a European version of TASSC, the European Science and Environment Forum (ESEF), led by Roger Bate, another tobacco lobbyist." (TASSC -- "The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition" -- was Milloy's front group for pushing pro-tobacco industry propaganda).

Bate wrote a letter to Prospect complaining that he had been "smeared," and that the ESEF had no connection with the tobacco industry. Specifically, he stated, "First, the tobacco industry never established the European Science and Environment Forum (ESEF). That allegation was addressed in the Lancet in 2000." (Italics mine) Ramesh Ponnuru, writing in the National Review Online, then called out Salon for "trustingly" linking to the Prospect story, and declared that "corrections" were called for.

The evidence of Bate's connections to the tobacco industry is voluminous, as I noted in Part II. But I also wrote that in their own blog-responses to Bate, Quiggin and Lambert did not, it seemed to me fully make their case in every point.

Tellingly, Lambert does not address Bate's assertion that "the tobacco industry never established the European Science and Environment Forum." So if a correction is going to be forthcoming, that appears to be the weakest link.

Current odds on such a correction being forthcoming: Unlikely. I've now had the chance to review the Lancet's coverage of this issue, in which Bate says "that allegation was addressed." Surprise, surprise -- Bate misrepresented the paper trail.

On April 8, 2000, the Lancet published "Tobacco industry efforts subverting International Agency for Research on Cancer's second-hand smoke study," an article by Elisa K. Ong and Stanton Glantz documenting in great (and appalling) detail how the tobacco industry spent millions of dollars in an effort to undermine one scientific study that purported to show health risks from second-hand smoke.

Here is the relevant paragraph for our purposes:

From 1993 to 1994, Philip Morris (PM) and public relations firm APCO Associates worked to launch The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), a "grassroots" organization advocating "sound science" in policy decision making. PM wanted a similar organization in Europe at the end of 1994, with potentially sympathetic European scientists invited to a conference hosted by TASSC. However, Burson-Marsteller research indicated that potential European members wanted independence from any corporate sponsors; two people specifically mentioned PM as typical of questionable corporate sponsors. It appears that the outcome was the European Science and Environment Forum (ESEF), established in 1996, whose executive director sought funding from the tobacco companies. In December, 1997, ESEF and TASSC issued a joint press statement, in which both organizations have identical descriptions. ESEF now states that its funding only comes from sales of its working papers, one of which criticizes IARC and the evidence on second-hand smoke.

I will concede that the sentence "It appears that the outcome was the European Science and Environment Forum (ESEF), established in 1996, whose executive director sought funding from the tobacco companies" does not, by any means, establish a definitive money trail between ESEF and the tobacco industry. Of course, since the point was to obscure that money trail, that's not very surprising. But I'm just plain amused that Bate's reference to how the Lancet dealt with the "allegation" that ESEF was a tobacco industry front turns out to be nothing more than a letter to the Lancet written by ESEF's medical demographer, Lorraine Mooney, asserting that "ESEF was formed in 1994 in response to the debate on climate change" and that "No funding is tied to specific projects and ESEF and its members always have full editorial control."

The Lancet published no retraction or correction of its original story, and I don't think National Review should hold their breath waiting for the Prospect to do so either.

One final note: Some readers have criticized me for focusing more on the funding than the so-called "science." This strikes me as extraordinarily naive. Particularly in health issues, ferreting out potential conflict-of-interest issues is critical to establishing credibility.

A case in point. In 1998, Lorraine Mooney wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal attacking the International Agency for Research on Cancer's (IARC) second-hand smoke study. She focused her attack on how the study statistically evaluated risk. According to her argument, the same numbers that the researchers who conducted the study were claiming demonstrated a clear health risk from second-hand smoke, could also be interpreted as indicating that there might be a health benefit from exposure to second-hand smoke.

There is a legitimate scientific issue as to how statistics are interpreted: It's the kind of thing scientists can argue about for a very long time. It's also the kind of thing that I am not professionally equipped to evaluate. Statistics are very tricky -- they are very easy to manipulate. But that's precisely why establishing whether one should trust whoever is doing the manipulating is of critical importance. ESEF just doesn't pass the credibility test.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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