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THE HEALTHY SKEPTIC

Whose side are health advocacy groups on?

The names might sound impressive -- but when parsing their message, you'll want to know who they serve.

July 06, 2009|Chris Woolston

Obesity is a national health crisis -- or it isn't. Vaccines cause autism -- or they don't. Think of any current health controversy, and you can be sure that plenty of experts have already taken opposite sides.

Some of the most influential and vocal health experts belong to advocacy organizations such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the American Council on Science and Health. These groups have well-oiled publicity machines, connections in Washington and a proven ability to show up in news stories. But who are they, and what do they stand for?

In large part, they stand for controversy. "Consumer groups will run with an issue if they think it will get them publicity and funding," says Robert Mayer, a professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. That doesn't automatically mean that the issues championed by the groups aren't valid -- but it helps, when assessing their words, to know more about them. Here, the Healthy Skeptic takes a look at a few of the groups behind the press releases.

American Council on Science and Health

The ACSH calls itself an "independent, nonprofit, tax-exempt organization" with an advisory board of 350 physicians, scientists and policy experts. The organization says 40% of its funding comes from corporations, although it doesn't specify which ones. Previous donors to ACSH have included Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola and Bristol-Myers, according to the Center for Media and Democracy, a Madison, Wis.-based nonprofit organization that publishes PR Watch, a quarterly newsletter that tracks advocacy organizations and PR groups.

That money doesn't buy loyalty, says ACSH associate director Jeff Stier: "I have no problem accepting funds from corporations as long as there are no strings attached."

With one notable exception -- tobacco -- the ACSH generally sides with industry on every health controversy, says Sheldon Rampton, research director for the Center for Media and Democracy. Some of these stances are well-supported by science. For instance, the group has debunked claims that childhood vaccines cause autism, a position that puts them in the same camp as most scientists and public health experts. On the other hand, the group also dismisses any suggestion that phthalate compounds in plastics pose health risks, a threat that most experts say is still an open question.

"They have quite a few legitimate scientists on their board," Mayer says. (The panel that investigated phthalates in the late 1990s was headed by former Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop.) Although they don't always reach the same conclusions as other consumer watchdog groups, they genuinely do seem interested in consumer safety and real science, he adds.

"We're controversial," Stier says. "We're always looking for areas where there's a gap between conventional wisdom and science."

The Center for Consumer Freedom

The CCF calls itself a "nonprofit organization devoted to promoting personal responsibility and protecting consumer choices." Founder Rick Berman, a Washington lobbyist, says his organization collects money from more than 100 companies, but he keeps the identity of donors secret, even from his own staff. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, past supporters of CCF include the American Beverage Institute, Monsanto, Tyson Foods and Wendy's.

The CCF has staked out some unusual territory in the health wars. The group has criticized Mothers Against Drunk Driving and fought against lowering the blood alcohol content thresholds for DUI laws. It strongly opposed a law requiring nutrition labeling in New York City restaurants. And it has frequently claimed that junk food doesn't cause obesity. For that matter, it believes that the entire obesity "crisis" is little more than media hype.

"We're libertarians," says Justin Wilson, a senior researcher at CCF. "Our convictions are founded on science." He claims that obesity is good for the economy -- all of those diet plans and doctor visits keep money flowing. He also says consumers deserve "full information" on health topics, as long as it doesn't interfere with their choices. "We should all be able to enjoy a meal guilt-free."

The CCF is often criticized as an unflinching mouthpiece for industry, especially food and beverage companies. "They are a completely self-serving operation," Mayer says. Rampton is more blunt: "[Berman] would promote arsenic if the arsenic industry paid him," he says.

Center for Science in the Public Interest

This organization, publisher of the Nutrition Action Healthletter, is best known for its reports detailing the nutritional excesses of Italian restaurants, Chinese restaurants and movie theater concession stands. It once memorably dubbed the dish fettuccine Alfredo (typically more than 1,000 calories and 50 grams of saturated fat per restaurant portion) "a heart attack on a plate."

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