Sunday, March 06, 2005

Citizens' Commission to Protect the Truth Files Amicus Brief in DOJ Tobacco Lawsuit

The Citizens' Commission to Protect the Truth -- a nonprofit organization created "to help ensure the continuation of truth®, the American Legacy Foundation's youth anti-smoking media campaign -- on February 24 submitted an amicus brief asking a federal District Court judge to order the tobacco company defendants in the Department of Justice's RICO-based lawsuit to "fund the Legacy's anti-tobacco truth® campaign to discourage smoking by children and teens." The brief argues that this would be an appropriate remedy in the case because it would "prevent future violations of RICO by the Defendant tobacco companies."

The Commission, which consists of all the living former Secretaries of Health, Education, and Welfare and Health and Human Services, Surgeon Generals, and CDC Directors, offered two primary arguments: (1) that an appropriate remedy for the tobacco company defendants' violations of the RICO statute is to order them "to fund a public education and youth smoking prevention campaign"; and (2) that "the American Legacy Foundation's truth® campaign should be the organization so funded." Two press releases were issued announcing the filing of this amicus brief. A Feb. 23 release states that the Citizens' Commission "was established to work toward the continued funding of the American Legacy Foundation's truth youth media campaign, which lost its funding in 2003." A Feb. 25 release states that the Citizens' Commission "was formed in 2004 to shine a spotlight on the continued need to fund truth and to require the major tobacco companies to continue financing the truth® campaign."

The Rest of the Story

What is not revealed in either the amicus brief or the press releases is the fact that the Citizens' Commission's primary source of funding is a grant from the American Legacy Foundation. According to the Commission's web site: "Principal funding for The Commission comes from the National Association of Attorneys General through a $1.5 million pass-through grant from the American Legacy Foundation." In other words, the American Legacy Foundation is funding a front group that has the appearance of being an independent entity that happens to support the Foundation's efforts, but which actually relies upon the Foundation as its chief source of funding.

At very least, this represents a significant conflict of interest that should certainly be disclosed in a legal brief submitted to a federal court judge in such an important and potentially fa
r-reaching lawsuit. In legal terms, a conflict of interest occurs when one "has competing professional or personal obligations or personal or financial interests that would make it difficult to fulfill his duties fairly." It would be hard to imagine the Citizens' Commission being able to perform its duties for the Court (as a supposedly independent party intervening with a supposedly legal opinion) fairly in this matter, given that its primary funding comes from the American Legacy Foundation and that it could therefore not be expected to offer any opinion other than that Legacy should be the "organization so funded" to carry out any potential anti-smoking media campaign ordered as a remedy in the case.

At worst, this could represent a violation, by Legacy, of basic ethical standards of conduct expected to underlie the behavior of a public health organization. If it is true, as it appears based on its behavior, that Legacy's intent was to fund a group to have the appearance of an independent entity composed of a group of "citizens" so concerned about the importance of funding the truth® campaign without explicitly disclosing the true financial underpinnings of the organization, then this desperate attempt by Legacy to save its funding in light of dwindling resources from the tobacco companies represents a serious breach of ethical conduct.

For years, tobacco control advocates have complained about the tobacco industry's use of front groups -- local organizations that are funded primarily by the industry but which represent themselves as independent coalitions of concerned citizens -- to advance tobacco industry policy interests (examples: 1 2 3 4 5). If the funding source for these front groups was disclosed, the groups would lose credibility and effectiveness as the conflict of interest in their opinions would be readily apparent.

Simply because we in public health are working toward a noble goal does not absolve us of the responsibility of acting ethically and with integrity. Using the same deceptive tactics that we criticize the tobacco industry for using is both hypocritical and wrong.

The simple funding of an organization to support one's own goals is not necessarily problematic. What is problematic is the deceptive intent. And that deceptive intent is suggested when the funded group fails to disclose the source of its funding. Failing to be forthright about its primary source of funding in press releases that will lead to news stories read by millions and in a federal court case in which the pursuit of justice is paramount appears to suggest deceptive intent. Adding to this impression is the failure to fully disclose its financial relationship with the American Legacy Foundation in the Commission's fact sheet, mission statement, a similar previous press release, and the press release announcing its formation, as well as on its current internet home page.

The rest of the story reveals deception on a grand scale by the very organization that seeks to convince a federal judge that it should be the organization chosen to run a national anti-smoking campaign under the name of the "truth."

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