Doubt is Their Product Documents

Doubt is Their Product

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In Doubt is Their Product, Michaels uses secret “smoking gun” documents, many never before published, that tell the inside story of the rise of a new type of scientist – the product defense specialist – who help polluters and manufacturers of dangerous products thwart government regulators and defeat the lawsuits of victims seeking compensation. 

It started with Big Tobacco.  Since the 1950s, when epidemiologists showed that smokers had hugely increased risk of lung cancer, the cigarette companies ran a sophisticated public relations campaign to raise doubts about the increasingly definitive scientific evidence.  The companies realized that if you could argue about the science, then you could avoid having to address solutions: how to help people stop smoking.  But even when that didn’t work, Big Tobacco could always fall back on the argument that smoking was a choice – whatever the risk, smokers made the choice themselves, and that it was their right to do so.

That all changed in the 1980s and 1990s, when studies began to demonstrate that cigarette smoke killed not just smokers but their non-smoking spouses.  Big Tobacco spent millions of dollars employing more and smarter scientists to argue that these studies were flawed. 

The result was the creation of an industry of scientific consultants who specialize in “product defense,” and the recognition by corporate spin experts that manufacturing doubt works – do it well and you can stop government regulators. Tobacco came first. Now it’s drugs like aspirin and Vioxx; chemicals like benzene, beryllium and chromium; food additives like artificial butter flavor. It’s the strategy employed by the oil and coal companies to deny the existence of global warming.

In Doubt is Their Product, Michaels documents how many of the same scientists and PR experts who manufactured doubt for Big Tobacco have now turned their expertise to other hazards, working for some of the country’s largest chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing firms.  Here is some the evidence Michaels has uncovered:

  • The public relations giant Hill & Knowlton, which pioneered the tobacco industry’s strategy of creating doubt, compiled a list of their success stories to help sell their services to other industries. They boast about their successes in impeding government regulation of a host of toxic chemicals including asbestos, vinyl chloride, and dioxin. When three scientists linked chlorofluorocarbon gas – Freon – to the destruction of the ozone layer and users of the chemicals began to look for alternatives, Hill and Knowlton went into action. On behalf of the Freon manufacturers, the firm attacked the science as uncertain, later boasting that its work helped DuPont gain ‘‘two or three years before the government took action to ban fluorocarbons.’’ In fact, the science was of the highest quality: The three researchers were awarded the Nobel Prize for this work.
  • When a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that taking a common over-the-counter drug dramatically increased the risk of hemorrhagic stroke in young women, the drug’s manufacturers (who paid for the study in the first place) brought in the Weinberg Group – another firm that worked extensively for Big Tobacco – to attack the study’s validity (see here and here). Fortunately, these tactics didn’t work in this case, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) forced the drug off the market. 
  • The Weinberg Group’s tactics did work for another drug, though. The FDA takes drugs off the market for one of two reasons: the drugs don’t work or their risks outweigh their benefits. After the FDA attempted to cancel one particular drug, the Weinberg Group was able to orchestrate a campaign to gain ten additional years of sales before FDA ultimately forced the drug off the market. (Amazingly, until recently the Weinberg Group boasted of this accomplishment on its website.) 
  • Chromium 6 is a powerful lung carcinogen. When the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was considering a workplace exposure standard, the chromium industry brought in some of the nation’s top product defense scientists to design a sophisticated counter attack. Secret minutes of the Chrome Coalition reveal how they planned a series of studies that could be used to slow the regulatory process. Taking a page from Big Tobacco, scientists were paid through the industry’s attorneys (rather than directly by the chromium companies), so damaging information could be hidden from the public and regulatory agencies.
  • Benzene is a common solvent present in many products, including gasoline. A series of studies done in China with the help of the US National Cancer Institute showed that very low levels of benzene exposure increase leukemia risk. The oil industry needed to counter the "allegations" in the NCI's studies, because the findings could lead to demands to reformulate gasoline and better control benzene emissions from refineries. So the oil companies decided to raise $22 million to conduct a series of studies in China designed to produce results that would exonerate benzene.

These are only some of the outrages Michaels uncovers in Doubt is their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health. The book is fully documented, with more than 1000 references. All the previously secret unpublished documents, as well as the many of the other sources, are available here.

Doubt is Their Product will be published by Oxford University Press in May 2008, and is available for pre-order from Amazon.com and Powells.com.

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Advance Praise for Doubt is their Product:

“What a perfect title, ‘Industry's Assault on Science.’ It’s happening. It’s real.”
-  Erin Brockovich

“This well-researched book by someone who truly knows the system is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the cozy relationship between industry and regulatory agencies on matters that affect the health and safety of our families and neighbors. The cited examples illustrate how, with the help of irresponsible members of Congress and other public officials, corporate greed can trump any sense of ethics, morality, and human compassion.”
- Neal Lane, former Science Advisor to the President and former Director of the National Science Foundation

 “This brave, shocking book exposes the abuse of science by government and industry in ways that endanger the workplace, the home, the water supply, the air quality—in fact, our planet as a whole. David Michaels speaks authoritatively from his firsthand experience as a champion of occupational safety and health. He tells a terrific story.”
- Dava Sobel, author of Longitude and Galileo’s Daughter

“In Doubt Is Their Product, David Michaels gives a lively and convincing history of how clever public relations has blocked one public health protection after another. The techniques first used to reassure us about tobacco were adapted to reassure us about asbestos, lead, vinyl chloride—and risks to nuclear facilities workers, where Dr. Michaels’ experience as the relevant Assistant Secretary of Energy gave him an inside view. And if you’re worried about climate change, keep worrying, because the same program is underway there.”
 - Donald Kennedy, Editor-in-Chief, Science

“We live in an age of unprecedented disinformation, misinformation, and outright lying by those in power. This important book shows who profits by misleading the public—and who ultimately pays with their health.”
- Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation