By Dr. Mercola
In 2016, evidence emerged showing Barbara Bowman, Ph.D., then-director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, assisted a Coca-Cola representative in efforts to influence World Health Organization officials to relax recommendations on sugar limits.1 Just two days after her betrayal of the public trust was exposed, Bowman vacated her post.2
Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald took her place, but it didn’t take long before we learned the newly instated CDC director also had a long history of collaborating with Coca-Cola. 3,4 During her six-year stint as commissioner of Georgia’s department of public health, Fitzgerald received $1 million5 in funding from the company to combat childhood obesity.
At the time of her appointment to CDC director, Jim O’Hara, director of health promotion policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest stated,6 “We hope Dr. Fitzgerald, as head of CDC, avoids partnering with Coke on obesity for the same reason she would avoid partnering with the tobacco industry on lung cancer prevention.”
In a twist of irony, Politico7 recently exposed Fitzgerald’s tobacco investments, which led to her handing in her resignation a day later. Spokesman Matt Lloyd issued a public statement saying, “Fitzgerald owns certain complex financial interests that have imposed a broad recusal limiting her ability to complete all of her duties as the CDC director.”
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, commented on the situation, saying, “It is unacceptable that the person responsible for leading our nation’s public health efforts has, for months, been unable to fully engage in the critical work she was appointed to do.”
Flagrant Conflicts of Interest at the CDC
Are there truly no qualified individuals who do not have deep ties to industry available to fill the highest posts within the CDC? Is seems rather remarkable that two CDC directors in a row have been caught maintaining such obvious conflicts of interest.
The discovery of Fitzgerald’s investments in a Japanese tobacco company was made possible by the 2012 law introduced by Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-New York, which prohibits insider trading by government employees. The law requires full disclosure of financial trades made by government employees, including Congressional members, and this is how Politico discovered Fitzgerald’s purchase of tobacco stocks.
In a statement, Slaughter said, “This episode is exactly why I wrote this law … The American people deserve to know whether federal officials are upholding the public trust and adhering to the highest ethical standards, or using their powerful positions to enrich themselves.” In this case, Fitzgerald reportedly owned stocks in no less than five different tobacco companies, plus drug companies, when she was appointed CDC director. As part of her ethics agreement, she sold those stocks when accepting her new position.
But then, mere months into the job, she went and bought stocks in Japan Tobacco International (JTI), one of the largest tobacco companies in the world. She also bought stocks in a dozen other health-related companies, including Merck, Bayer, Humana and U.S. Foods Holding Corp.
She’s also been criticized for being slow to sell off other, earlier investments that were preventing her from fulfilling her professional duties. As reported by Politico, she was unable to provide Congressional testimony on at least three separate occasions due to financial conflicts of interest.8 Two of those hearings involved cancer detection and the opioid epidemic.
It’s really hard to imagine someone can reach this level of power and be so clueless about ethics. Smoking is a leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., so clearly, investing in a tobacco company is going to be at odds with your professional duty as the leader of the CDC. Just last November Fitzpatrick issued a CDC statement reinforcing the agency’s determination to “continue to use proven strategies to help smokers quit and to prevent children from using any tobacco products.”9
Vaping Technology — Hardly a Viable Smoking Cessation Tool
Interestingly, JTI’s emerging product line is primarily focused on vaping products,10,11 which are increasingly being marketed as tools to quit smoking regular cigarettes. One wonders whether this might have influenced Fitzpatrick’s decision to invest in this company. Such ponderings are entirely speculative of course, but the fact remains that while marketed as a smoking cessation tool, emerging evidence suggests vaping and electronic cigarettes are just as harmful, if not more harmful, than regular cigarettes.
Just last year, the CDC warned that e-cigarette use among children is a growing health concern. At present, e-cigarettes are the most commonly used form of tobacco by American youth and young adults. A significant draw for youngsters is the fact that vaping pens and e-cigarettes can be used to smoke all sorts of flavored concoctions, from bubble gum and watermelon to chocolate.
So, for Fitzgerald to state a public oath to fight use of tobacco products among children, and then purchase stocks in a company whose chief new product line is focused on kid-friendly vaping technology seems insincere at best.
At worst, her connection with JTI might eventually have led to her downplaying harms of vaping, or worse, endorsing its use as a smoking cessation tool based on flawed or biased science by the industry. Again, this is all speculation, and since Fitzpatrick has stepped down, the point is moot anyway. I’m speculating merely to draw attention to the very real dangers these kinds of conflicts of interest can create.
Tobacco Industry Invented Fake News
As noted in a recent STAT news article, product defense reporting is an old “fake news” tactic perfected by the tobacco industry decades ago, and while the tobacco industry no longer tries to defend cigarette smoking, you can see the same whitewash tactics being used to promote vaping as a safe alternative. Writer and former investigator for the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, Paul D. Thacker, describes how the tobacco industry invented and mastered the use of fake news to postpone the industry’s ultimate demise:12
“I fell into this world back in 2005, while working as an editor for the news section of Environmental Science & Technology … After … 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’ …
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 … 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 …
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 … As a way to defend industry from government regulation, corporate advocates routinely referred to studies published in 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.”
Newsweek Publishes Industry Propaganda Without Disclosing Conflicts of Interest
Disturbingly, popular news sources such as Newsweek and USA Today still choose to peddle this kind of industry propaganda. In a recent post, U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) asks, “Why are Newsweek and USA Today so willing to let special interests mislead their readers?”13
Last year, Henry Miller was fired by Forbes magazine when it was revealed an article published in his name had been written almost entirely by Monsanto. Fast-forward just a few months, and on January 19, 2018, Newsweek ran an article by Miller with the headline “The Campaign for Organic Food Is a Deceitful, Expensive Scam.”14,15
In this obvious hit piece aimed at invalidating the organic industry to protect chemical technology giants like Monsanto, Miller attacks New York Times reporter Danny Hakim’s writings, saying Hakim failed to do his homework before writing about genetic engineering. However, what people don’t realize — because Miller doesn’t reveal it, and Newsweek editors didn’t add it — is that Miller has a very personal gripe against Hakim.
Hakim was the reporter who revealed Monsanto wrote Miller’s Forbes article. Miller mentions none of that, nor does he disclose his collaborations with Monsanto. The fact that Newsweek let this lack of disclosure slide is disconcerting. The fact that they published anything by Miller at all is astounding, considering his reputation as an independent expert on GMOs has been soundly demolished. It’s now a well-known fact that Miller speaks for the chemical technology industry. As noted by USRTK:16
“Monsanto’s fingerprints were all over Miller’s Newsweek article … Miller used pesticide industry sources to make false claims about organic farming and attacked people who were named on a target list that had been developed by Monsanto and Jay Byrne, Monsanto’s former director of corporate communications, who was quoted in Miller’s piece with no mention of the Monsanto affiliation. None of this appears to bother Newsweek Opinion Editor Nicholas Wapshott, according to an on-the-record email exchange.”
That email exchange is too extensive for me to copy here, but I recommend you read it. It’s rather remarkable. In a nutshell, Wapshott chooses to print Miller’s propaganda because he’s met the man and “he seems genuine.”
USA Today Provides Platform for Industry Front Group
In a similar vein, USA Today recently published information furnished by the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) — a well-known front group (among those in the know) for several of the most harmful industries on the planet, including fracking, tobacco and agrichemicals — without disclosing any of these ties to readers. As noted by USRTK:17
“In February 2017, two dozen health, environmental, labor and public interest groups wrote to the editors of USA Today asking the paper to stop publishing science columns by the ACSH, or at least provide full disclosures about who funds the group …
ACSH spins science on fracking, e-cigarettes, toxic cosmetics and agrichemical … products, and solicits funding from those industries in exchange. Recent reporting establishes that ACSH works with Monsanto on messaging campaigns.”
USA Today editorial page editor Bill Sternberg responded saying that Alex Berezow, who wrote the piece in question, is considered “a credible voice on scientific issues,” citing the fact that Berezow has been on the paper’s board of contributors since 2011, holds a Ph.D. in microbiology, founded RealClearScience and is a contributor to many mainstream news outlets. The problem is, Berezow is also a senior fellow at ACSH, yet readers are not informed of this or the conflicts of interest inherent in this connection.
It’s truly unfortunate, but as noted by investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson, author of “Stonewalled,” investigative journalism has taken a backseat to corporate propaganda and news skewed to favor a particular corporate viewpoint. Another book that takes you on a deep dive into the murky waters of corporate-based influence is “Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science,” written by lifelong journalist and former Reuters reporter Carey Gillam.
As noted by both Attkisson and Gillam, the main problem we face today is the fact that corporate interests have been allowed to trump public safety. Publishing articles by industry mouthpieces like Miller and ACSH without disclosing readily apparent conflicts of interest keeps this dangerous status quo in place.
Revolving Door Between Big Pharma and Federal Agencies Keep Spinning
In related news, Kaiser Health notes that hundreds of individuals have “glided through the ‘revolving door’ that connects the drug industry to Capitol Hill and the Department of Health and Human Services [DHHS].”18 One of the latest is Alex Azar, former president of Eli Lilly and Company, who stepped into the position of HHS Secretary on January 24. As noted by NPR:19
“In that role, he’ll oversee the Food and Drug Administration [FDA], which regulates prescription drugs including those produced by his former employer. He’ll also oversee Medicare and Medicaid, which together spend hundreds of billions of dollars each year on prescription medications.”
According to Kaiser Health News’ investigation, nearly 340 former congressional staffers are now employed either by drug companies or their lobbying firms, and more than a dozen former drug company employees are now sitting on Capitol Hill and in various health care policy committees. Some of the most recent examples, aside from Azar, include:
- Scott Gottlieb, former venture capitalist “with deep ties to the pharmaceutical industry,” now FDA Commissioner
- Keagan Lenihan, former lobbyist for the drug distributor McKesson, now senior counselor to Azar
- John O’Brien, former PhRMA lobbyist, now deputy assistant secretary of health policy for HHS Planning and Evaluation
- Mary-Sumpter Lapinski, former lobbyist for Bristol-Myers Squibb, now counselor for the HHS secretary’s office
As noted by Jock Friedly, founder and president of LegiStorm20 (a congressional directory app that provides real-time data and alerts on congressional hearings, town hall gatherings and more): “Who do they really work for? Are they working for the person who is paying their bills at that moment or are they essentially working on behalf of the interests who have funded them in the past and may fund them in the future?”
While there may be rare exceptions, more often than not, professional relationships are not easily severed, and favors large and small tend to be expected from, and granted by, old colleagues. Add in the hope or promise of a financial reward, and it’s easy to see how public interests end up being sacrificed. There are no easy answers to these problems, but exposing the truth is a crucial step in the corrective process.