From the Baltimore Sun

Science-for-hire hazardous to health

By David Michaels

April 17, 2006

WASHINGTON -- Thank You for Smoking, which has opened in movie theaters across the nation, reminds us of the tobacco industry's diabolical realization that it could delay public health protection by manufacturing uncertainty about the risks of smoking. For 50 years, tobacco companies employed a stable of scientists to challenge the evidence that cigarettes caused lung cancer.

Scientists paid to create doubt dissected every study and highlighted flaws and inconsistencies in order to convince public health officials not that cigarettes were safe, but that there was not yet sufficient evidence of their danger to justify limiting places where tobacco could be smoked.

Not surprisingly, other industries recognized the brilliance of tobacco's approach and bankrolled campaigns to discredit studies documenting the adverse health effects of exposure to lead, mercury, chromium, beryllium, benzene, plastics and a long list of pesticides and other toxic chemicals. Manufacturing uncertainty is now so commonplace that it is unusual for the science behind an environmental regulation not to be challenged.

These days, the most well-known and probably best-funded of these campaigns is the one launched by the fossil fuel industry to create doubt about environmental and public health impacts of global warming. When confronted by overwhelming worldwide scientific agreement, the industry and its political allies have followed the tobacco road.

ABC News recently reported on a 1998 memo by the American Petroleum Institute that reads, "Victory will be achieved when ... average citizens recognize uncertainties in climate science."

In 2002, Republican political consultant Frank Luntz sent his clients a strategy memo that asserted: "The scientific debate remains open. Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming in the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly."

Except when political appointees override the judgment of career federal scientists (as when a White House staffer rewrote an Environmental Protection Agency report on global warming to highlight scientific uncertainty), the nonpolitical staff at regulatory agencies can generally see through these crude efforts to create doubt. And Congress has refused to pass the Bush administration's attempts, such as the initiative with the Orwellian name "Clear Skies," to weaken environmental laws.

Clearly frustrated, the White House is making a run around Congress to change the way the agencies conduct risk assessments, the studies that form the basis for health protections. The Office of Management and Budget has proposed mandatory "guidelines" that would require agencies to conduct impossibly comprehensive risk assessments before issuing scientific or technical documents, including the rules polluters have to follow.

What appears at first blush to be good government reform is in fact a backdoor attempt to undermine existing environmental laws. If this is successful, the uncertainty manufactured by polluters will be written into federal risk assessments, providing the justification to weaken public health protection.

The White House should thank the tobacco industry for providing the groundwork for the risk assessment proposal.

Thank you for Smoking was written in the early 1990s, when the cigarette manufacturers were under attack, particularly from federal agencies. A 1992 EPA risk assessment estimated that every year, secondhand tobacco smoke killed 3,000 nonsmokers and caused more than 150,000 respiratory infections among children.

Big tobacco's response, disputing EPA estimates, was spearheaded by experts in the lucrative new industry science called "product defense."

The cigarette manufacturers' scientists-for-hire were rarely successful in swaying federal scientists, so the industry arranged for other legislation whose name was misleading, the "Data Quality Act" (DQA), to be slipped into an appropriations bill in 2001 without hearing or debate. The DQA allows affected parties to challenge a government report or document, giving tobacco a new forum to argue over science and to further delay the government's smoking prevention activities.

Now, with its risk assessment proposal, the Bush administration is interpreting the DQA as a license to override the Clean Air Act and laws meant to protect the public's health and environment.

Years from now, we will view these attempts by the administration and hired scientific guns to weaken environmental protections with the same outrage with which we now look back on the deceits perpetrated by Big Tobacco. But will years from now be too late?