The American Council on Science and Health bills itself as an independent research and advocacy organization devoted to debunking “junk science.” It’s a controversial outfit—a “group of scientists…concerned that many important public policies related to health and the environment did not have a sound scientific basis,” it says—that often does battle with environmentalists and consumer safety advocates, wading into public health debates to defend fracking, to fight New York City’s attempt to ban big sugary sodas, and to dismiss concerns about the potential harms of the chemical bisphenol-A (better known at BPA) and the pesticide atrazine. The group insists that its conclusions are driven purely by science. It acknowledges that it receives some financial support from corporations and industry groups, but ACSH, which reportedly stopped disclosing its corporate donors two decades ago, maintains that these contributions don’t influence its work and agenda.
Yet internal financial documents (read them here) provided to Mother Jones show that ACSH depends heavily on funding from corporations that have a financial stake in the scientific debates it aims to shape. The group also directly solicits donations from these industry sources around specific issues. ACSH’s financial links to corporations involved in hot-button health and safety controversies have been highlighted in the past, but these documents offer a more extensive accounting of ACSH’s reliance on industry money—giving a rare window into the operations of a prominent and frequent defender of industry in the science wars.
According to the ACSH documents, from July 1, 2012, to December 20, 2012, 58 percent of donations to the council came from corporations and large private foundations. ACSH’s donors and the potential backers the group has been targeting comprise a who’s-who of energy, agriculture, cosmetics, food, soda, chemical, pharmaceutical, and tobacco corporations. ACSH donors in the second half of 2012 included Chevron ($18,500), Coca-Cola ($50,000), the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation ($15,000), Dr. Pepper/Snapple ($5,000), Bayer Cropscience ($30,000), Procter and Gamble ($6,000), agribusiness giant Syngenta ($22,500), 3M ($30,000), McDonald’s ($30,000), and tobacco conglomerate Altria ($25,000). Among the corporations and foundations that ACSH has pursued for financial support since July 2012 are Pepsi, Monsanto, British American Tobacco, DowAgro, ExxonMobil Foundation, Phillip Morris International, Reynolds American, the Koch family-controlled Claude R. Lambe Foundation, the Dow-linked Gerstacker Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, and the Searle Freedom Trust.
Dr. Gilbert Ross, the group’s executive director, declined to answer specific questions about ACSH’s fundraising. He did not dispute the authenticity of the documents provided to Mother Jones. (Multiple corporations listed as donors on these documents confirmed they had supported ACSH.) Ross says the group doesn’t disclose its backers because “the sources of our support are irrelevant to our scientific investigations.” According to Ross, “Only science-based facts hold sway in our publications, even if the outcome is not pleasing to our contributors.”
As Mother Jones reported in 2005, Ross was previously convicted for defrauding New York State’s Medicaid program of roughly $8 million. His medical license was temporarily revoked and a jury sentenced him to 46 months in prison, of which he served 23 months. Ross currently has his license and is allowed to practice.
Elizabeth Whelan, a Harvard-trained public-health scientist, founded ACSH in 1978 as a counterweight to environmental groups and Ralph Nader’s consumer advocacy movement. “ACSH protects consumer freedom from a variety of unscientifically based activist organizations—such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Science in the Public Interest, and Environmental Working Group—that use ‘junk science’ and hyperbole about risk to promote fears about our food, pharmaceuticals and chemicals, and other environmental and lifestyle factors,” ACSH says on its website. “Their agenda is to limit or dismantle many technological achievements that contribute to consumer choice and good health.”
From the start, ACSH has faced questions about its funding. It was launched with $100,000 in seed money from the Sarah Scaife Foundation, which has also supported the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and Americans for Tax Reform, among other conservative groups. By the early 1980s, ACSH’s donors included Dow, Monsanto, American Cyanamid, Mobil Foundation, Chevron, and Bethlehem Steel. In 1984, Georgia-Pacific, a leading formaldehyde maker, funded a friend-of-the-court brief filed by ACSH in an industry-backed lawsuit that overturned a ban on formaldehyde insulation.
When ACSH was founded, Whelan stated that the council “intends to remain free from financial ties with corporations with a financial interest in the topics we are investigating.” Initially, ACSH disclosed its donors, and it was obvious that the group embraced numerous causes connected to its funders. ACSH defended the chemical Alar, used to regulate the growth of apples—and accepted donations from Uniroyal, which manufactured and sold Alar. It also opposed new mandatory nutrition labeling requirements—and pocketed money from Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg Co., Nestle USA, and the National Soft Drink Association.
ACSH maintains that it doesn’t accept donations from corporations or trade associations earmarked for specific research projects—that is, that there’s no quid pro quo. But in a March 1992 internal memo obtained by Consumer Reports, Whelan wrote that ACSH staffers would ask the Calorie Control Council, a trade group backed by diet food and drink companies, and McNeil Specialty Products, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary that owned the US marketing rights to Splenda (an artificial sweetener), for contributions to underwrite the dissemination of a research paper touting artificial sweeteners. (Splenda was then seeking approval for sale in the United States.)
The newly revealed documents say that ACSH staffers should approach potential corporate financial backers with pitches geared toward specific issues. Last year, the documents note, the group planned to “seize opportunities to cultivate new funding possibilities (Prop 37, CSC, and corporate caving, etc.).” Proposition 37 was a 2012 California ballot initiative mandating the labeling of genetically modified foods. (It failed.) “CSC” is shorthand for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a consumer watchdog group that seeks to eliminate dangerous chemicals from cosmetic products. The documents suggest ACSH planned to mention CSC in its fundraising pitches to L’Oreal, Avon, and Procter and Gamble.
Lately, ACSH has become a vocal player in the debate over hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” In February, the council posted an outline of a “systematic, objective review” it intends to publish on the scientific literature covering the potential health effects of fracking. In an April op-ed for the conservative Daily Caller website, Whelan criticized Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) for dithering on whether to allow fracking in New York State and asserted that “publicity savvy activists posing as public health experts are spearheading a disingenuous crusade to prevent the exploitation of the vast quantities of natural gas.” Fracking, Whelan wrote, “doesn’t pollute water or air.”
The Daily Caller story included no disclosure of the funding ACSH has received from the energy industry. Big energy companies and ACSH go way back: In the 1992 memo, Whelan called ACSH “the great defender of petrochemical companies.” On an ACSH-run Facebook page supporting fracking, the group acknowledges accepting “money from industry,” but it does not indicate which companies have donated or how much. According to the ACSH documents, it received a $37,500 donation in 2012 from the American Petroleum Institute related to “fracking.” That year, it also received other energy industry funds, including $18,500 from Chevron and $75,000 from the ExxonMobil Foundation.
The ACSH documents list ConocoPhillips as a “projected” donor for “fracking/general” and say ACSH should pitch the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, a “past supporter,” around the issue of fracking.
According to the documents, ACSH was awarded a grant for fracking work from the Triad Foundation ($35,000 for “gen/fracking”). Triad has supported the Heritage Foundation and the Heartland Institute, a nonprofit that has worked to refute climate science. The Bodman Foundation also gave $40,000 to support a forthcoming ACSH study titled “Hydraulic Fracturing: Myths and Realities.” Bodman is a reliable supporter of conservative causes, doling out five-figure sums to the American Enterprise Institute, Hudson Institute, and National Center for Policy Analysis.
Though ACSH has often taken industry-friendly positions on public health issues, it has long campaigned against smoking. In 1993, Elizabeth Whelan wrote in the Wall Street Journal—a frequent home for ACSH op-eds—in favor of a “user’s fee” on smokers to fund health-care reform. Three years later, ACSH published a book called Cigarettes: What the Warning Label Doesn’t Tell You, with chapters detailing how smoking makes men infertile, causes blindness, and leads to brittle bones. Ross, ACSH’s medical director, has backed a call for the film industry to slap an “R” rating on any movie with smoking in it.
Yet more recently, the agendas of ACSH and Big Tobacco have overlapped, thanks to the growing market for tobacco alternatives, including e-cigarettes and other smoke-free products. As ACSH has courted tobacco companies large and small for financial support, it has touted e-cigarettes—some being manufactured by subsidiaries of major tobacco companies—as a safer alternative to cigarettes. And the documents show that ACSH planned to receive a total of $338,200 from tobacco companies between July 2012 and June 2013. Reynolds American and Phillip Morris International were each listed as expected to give $100,000 in 2013, which would make them the two largest individual donations listed in the ACSH documents. (Reynolds confirmed making a $100,000 donation to ACSH in 2012 and donating additional money in 2013. Phillip Morris confirmed donating to ACSH in 2012 and 2013 but didn’t disclose the amounts.)
Ross has stumped for e-cigarettes on TV and radio appearances and in op-eds, writing this month for Forbes that e-cigarettes are a “nascent public-health miracle” and urging US regulators to embrace e-cigarettes—which use liquid nicotine to deliver a smokeless hit for users—as an alternative to cancer-causing traditional cigarettes. Ross’ op-ed was timely. Any day now, the FDA is expected to announce new plans to regulate the $1.5 billion e-cigarette industry, which saw its sales triple this year.
But Ross’ op-ed does not disclose ACSH’s financial support from big tobacco companies like Altria and Reynolds that own e-cigarette-making subsidiaries. Nor does it mention that ACSH, as the fundraising documents suggest, is using the e-cigarettes issue to court potential new funders such as VMR Products and its subsidiary V2 Cigs, Green Smoke, and 21st Century.
In the Forbes op-ed, Ross criticizes nonprofit groups campaigning against e-cigarettes, huffing that they are “heavily funded by pharmaceutical companies in the business of selling near-useless cessation drugs—a fact which they conveniently neglect to disclose.” It was a bold charge, given ACSH’s own record on the disclosure of industry donations.