Critics silenced & friends won through corporate donations

Corporate financial support of many of the country’s most prominent health-related nonprofit organizations threatens the independence and credibility of such groups, according to a report released today by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). More than 170 disease-related charities, health-professional societies, and university-based institutes enjoy the largesse of food, agribusiness, chemical, pharmaceutical, and other corporate interests, but that generosity may exact too high a price on an important sector of American life, charged the report.

The report recalls the negative publicity generated by the American Medical Association’s (AMA) endorsement deal with medical equipment supplier Sunbeam, which eventually forced the group to cancel the deal under pressure. More recent corporate “partnerships” indicate that the AMA scandal has done little to deter nonprofit leaders from pursuing six- or seven-figure grants that seem to have strings attached. One such arrangement documented in the report is that of Coca-Cola’s $1-million gift to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD). Before the 2003 donation, the AAPD recognized the connection between sugary drinks and dental disease. When AAPD president David Curtis defended the Coke deal, he told reporters that the “scientific evidence is certainly not clear” on the role soft drinks play.

“What a difference a million dollars makes,” CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson wrote in the report’s introduction, referring to the AAPD’s coupling with the world’s leading soda manufacturer. “And what a coup for Coca-Cola, turning a potential opponent into an ally. You can bet that the AAPD will not be terribly supportive of measures to reduce soft-drink consumption. At best, it will probably be silent on such matters. At worst, it will support its generous new friend.”

Other nonprofit groups with questionable corporate ties include:

  • American Dietetic Association. The leading professional associations for registered dietitians takes outright donations from food companies. It also lets companies fund fact sheets: The National Soft Drink Association “sponsors” the association’s fact sheet on soft drinks; McDonald’s sponsors “Nutrition on the Go,” and so on.
  • International Society for Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology. Sponsored by Dow AgroSciences, Eastman Kodak, Gillette, Merck, Procter & Gamble, RJ Reynolds Tobacco, and other corporations that have an interest in weakening government regulation of chemicals. ISRTP publishes a journal with a strong anti-regulatory editorial slant.
  • Society for Women’s Health Research. This women's-health group criticized the way the National Institutes of Health publicized a major new study that found that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) increased the risk of breast cancer and heart attacks. Wyeth, which markets Prempro, the most widely used HRT drug for post-menopausal women, is a major contributor to SWHR. Wyeth underwrote the expenses for SWHR's April 2002 black-tie fund-raising dinner at Washington's Ritz-Carlton Hotel and, a week later, gave SWHR $250,000 at a special event celebrating the 60th anniversary of another Wyeth HRT drug. On a second matter, Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation gave SWHR substantial funding to mount an education initiative, including full-page ads in national magazines, about irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Novartis markets Zelnorm, which is used to treat IBS.

Sometimes, according to the report, corporations literally create nonprofit organizations from scratch. They may have beneficent-sounding names and seemingly objective programs, but are designed primarily to advance their sponsors’ interests. Some of those include theFoundation for Clean Air Progress (funded by petroleum, trucking, and chemical companies), the Coalition for Animal Health (funded by cattle, hog, and agribusiness concerns), and the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) (originally funded by Philip Morris but now funded by chain restaurants and bars, although it refuses to disclose its contributors.) Part of CCF’s focus is to downplay obesity-related health concerns.

The report also identifies more than 30 university-based research centers that draw substantial financial support from companies or corporate trade associations. Among those are several university centers on forestry funded by timber or paper industries and several centers on nutrition funded by food and agribusiness companies. All such centers let corporations put an academic sheen on industry-funded research, according to CSPI.

“People would be far more skeptical of a ‘Corporate Polluters Lobbying Association’ than an industry-funded ‘Harvard University Center on Important Issues,’” said Jacobson. “Companies hope that a nonprofit’s or university’s good name will burnish their reputations. Call it ‘innocence by association.’”

CSPI releases the report as it prepares to convene a July 11 conference in Washington on how corporations use science and scientists to manipulate public opinion and regulatory policy on health and the environment.

Note: For a copy of the full report, Lifting the Veil of Secrecy, send a check for $15 payable to Center for Science in the Public Interest, attention: Adam Pearson, Center for Science in the Public Interest, 1875 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 300, Washington, DC 20036.