Monday, April 02, 2007

IN MY VIEW: Citizens' Commission to Protect the Truth is Hiding the Truth

The Citizens' Commission to Protect the Truth - a group including former U.S. Secretaries of Health and Human Services, former Surgeon Generals, and former CDC directors - has demanded that television networks stop airing Philip Morris' youth anti-smoking commercials and has asked the company to discontinue the ads and instead, to provide the advertising money to the American Legacy Foundation's "truth" anti-smoking campaign.

The request followed the November 2006 publication of an article in the American Journal of Public Health which concluded that the Philip Morris "Talk. They'll Listen" advertisements encourage kids to smoke, rather than deter them from smoking.

The Citizens' Commission press release (issued on November 2, 2006) stated: "The Citizens’ Commission to Protect the Truth, a group of all former U.S. Secretaries of Health, Education, and Welfare and of Health and Human Services, all former U.S. Surgeons General, and all former Directors of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has demanded that the five major U.S. television networks stop airing the Philip Morris “Talk. They’ll Listen.” advertising campaign. A new study in the American Journal of Public Health finds that these so-called “youth anti-smoking commercials” actually encourage teens to smoke." ...

“Ending smoking by American children and teens is crucial to the health of our nation,” said Louis Sullivan, M.D., President Emeritus of the Morehouse School of Medicine, Secretary of Health and Human Services under President George H.W. Bush and a member of the Citizens’ Commission. “If Philip Morris is serious about reducing youth smoking rates, they should take the advertising dollars spent on their so called anti-smoking ads and give them to the only proven effective youth anti-smoking campaign, truth®.”

The Rest of the Story

There's just one thing missing from the Citizens' Commission press release. But it's a pretty crucial piece of information - a fact that potentially completely alters one's interpretation of the Citizens' Commission's actions.

As it is, the press release makes it sound like an entirely independent group of citizens, headed by the former HHS secretaries, Surgeon Generals, and CDC directors, happens to think that it would be in the best interests of the public's health for Philip Morris to provide the American Legacy Foundation with millions of dollars to help run its "truth" anti-smoking campaign.

The piece of information that is missing from the press release, however, is that -- according to its website -- the Citizens' Commission is in fact funded by the American Legacy Foundation to advocate on behalf of the American Legacy Foundation: "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 Citizens' Commission is basically a front group for the American Legacy Foundation. It apparently receives funding primarily from the American Legacy Foundation to conduct its primary business which is to advocate for funding for the American Legacy Foundation. But without readily disclosing (such as in its press releases) its financial affiliation with Legacy.

I find this to be dishonest or at least deceptive. It is hiding the truth, which is rather ironic considering that the so-called purpose of the group is to protect the truth and the campaign which the group aims to obtain funding for is the "truth" campaign. Nothing like using a little deception to try to get funding for a campaign to tell the truth.

Unfortunately, the Citizens' Commission has a long history of hiding its financial affiliation with Legacy and thus acting the way a traditional tobacco industry front group acts (hiding its financial ties to Big Tobacco so that the group doesn't lose legitimacy that it would give up if it were clear that the group advocating for Big Tobacco interests was not in fact independent from the cigarette companies).

In fact, the original press release announcing the formation of the Citizens' Commission declared that the former HHS secretaries, Surgeon Generals, and CDC directors were forming a citizens' commission to try to increase funding for the American Legacy Foundation's "truth" campaign, but did not disclose the fact that the Commission was in fact a financial outgrowth from the American Legacy Foundation.

It certainly wouldn't have sounded as impressive to state: "The American Legacy Foundation has decided to fund a group to try to obtain increased funding for the American Legacy Foundation." That just doesn't have the same sting to it. The truth can have a funny way of sometimes getting in the way.

But while it's wrong for the tobacco companies to let the truth get in the way, it's apparently not a problem as long as your goal is to stop tobacco use, rather than promote it.

It's also quite disturbing to me that the way the Citizens' Commission suggests that the "truth" campaign be funded is for Philip Morris to pay for the ads using the budget it would have spent for its own commercials. In other words, the Citizens' Commission appears to be asking Philip Morris for money to run the American Legacy Foundation's programs. Or to look at it another way, the American Legacy Foundation is asking Philip Morris for money to run the American Legacy Foundation's programs.

I find that mildly ironic since it is the American Legacy Foundation which set a policy of refusing to fund researchers at schools of public health if anyone at their schools accepts tobacco money and if they fail to sign a pledge stating that no one at the school will take money from any tobacco company for the duration of the individual faculty member's grant from Legacy (the policy is known as clause 12).

This is a true double standard. The American Legacy Foundation is taking a very strong and principled stand that it is wrong for anyone to take tobacco money...

...Unless you are the American Legacy Foundation, in which case it's perfectly all right.

I guess that if your cause is a good one, then the tobacco money becomes clean as soon as it changes hands. Perhaps the bank that Legacy uses has a procedure for decontaminating the tobacco money as it comes in.

It is also interesting to note how the American Legacy Foundation insists that the Citizens' Commission is completely independent from it, even though Legacy is the Commission's principal funder. From Legacy's website: "While the American Legacy Foundation is the principal funder of the Citizens’ Commission through a pass-through grant from the National Association of Attorneys General, the Commission is a fully independent entity."

By that same argument, many of the research projects funded by the tobacco companies were fully independent. The tobacco companies often did provide research funding without "strings attached." Is the American Legacy Foundation prepared to defend the tobacco companies' funding of academic research in situations where the research decisions are left to the investigators? If so, then why did it refuse to fund any schools where researchers accepted tobacco money but retained full control over their work?

Clearly, consistency in argumentation is not one of the American Legacy Foundation's strong points.

I find it unfortunate that the American Legacy Foundation and the Citizens' Commission have set such low ethical standards for the rest of the tobacco control movement to follow. Sinking as low as essentially setting up a front group - which was a common tobacco industry tactic - is not exactly the kind of leadership we need right now in tobacco control.

Ironically, those who are trying to protect the "truth" need to start being a little more forthcoming with the truth. Otherwise, why should we take them seriously?

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