American Council on Science and Health
|Motto||Science. Not Hype.|
Consumer education, Debunker
|Headquarters||New York City|
The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH or The Council) is a science education nonprofit organization founded in 1978 by Elizabeth Whelan. Its stated mission is to "support evidence-based science and medicine." The current president is science writer Hank Campbell. Its core membership is a board of 350 physicians, scientists, and policy advisors who review the Council's reports and participate in science, health, and consumer education, as well as media outreach.
ACSH's primary focus is educating the public on issues related to food, nutrition, health, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, biology, biotechnology, infectious disease, and the environment.
History of the Organization
In the 1970s, ACSH scientists, saying they were concerned with what they described as the lack of sound scientific basis, common sense, reason, and balance in public forums and public policy regarding such issues as health and the environment, began to produce their own policy statements. Over the years, their articles have included such topics as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), obesity, chemophobia, phthalates, DDT, fracking, e-cigarettes, GMOs, atrazine, and bisphenol-A.
Whelan says she was motivated to found the American Council on Science and Health after doing research for the pharmaceutical company Pfizer about a section of the 1958 Food Additive Amendment to ban certain chemicals from foods. With further research, she says she found that public discourse and public policy were chemophobic. Her first book, Panic in the Pantry (1976), challenged the notion, popular in the 1970s, that "natural" was better and that "chemicals" were dangerous.
In 1978, along with Frederick J. Stare, founder of the Harvard Nutrition Department, Whelan invited 50 other scientists to "bring the message of sound science to consumers, via the media" in a "consumer education consortium." Their first financial support came from the Scaife Foundation and the John M. Olin Foundation. By 2003, almost 400 scientists had joined ACSH.
Chemicals in the Environment
ACSH frequently warns against regulating chemicals without scientific proof of harm. A 2009 editorial by board member Henry Miller in Investor's Business Daily criticized the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): "An EPA hit list of important and demonstrably safe chemicals is about to be put through the regulatory wringer, and many are likely to be banned or severely restricted. These include bisphenol-A, phthalates, flame retardants, the herbicide atrazine and fluorinated chemicals used to make Teflon."
On 10 February 2009, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act imposed regulations of several substances and banned the manufacture for sale, distribution in commerce, or import any children's toy or childcare article that contains "concentrations of more than 0.1 percent of" di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP), or benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP). Michael Kamrin, who was on ACSH's Board of Scientific and Policy Advisors, published a critical review in 2009 in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, claiming that phthalates were safe. ACSH's advocacy on the issue extends back to 1999, when it worked with former US Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to advocate for the ingredient used in many soft plastics.
Food Safety and Nutrition
ACSH has advocated against taxation of food that contributes to weight gain as a means to combat obesity. The group opposed New York State's move to require food chains to post calorie information on their products. ACSH has also called for better regulation and testing of dietary supplements.
Diseases and Pharmaceuticals
ACSH criticized Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz's Breast Cancer Education and Awareness Requires Learning Young Act as focusing on detection methods that were not scientifically supported but distracting from more effective measures. The group worked to clarify unclear messages and dispel myths surrounding the swine flu outbreak in 2009. In 2008, ACSH applauded the American Academy of Pediatrics for demanding for an episode of Eli Stone to carry a disclaimer since the show depicted a jury awarding damages based on the claim that a vaccine caused autism. ACSH has long been critical of groups that claim a supposed link between the two.
Following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, ACSH opposed the appointment of a federal official to oversee and administer aid to those injured during the attacks and subsequent rescue; it argued that such a move would create another layer of bureaucracy between victims and aid. Also, the group criticized rescue workers who attempted to fraudulently receive financial compensation but did not suffer injuries.
Since its founding in 1978, ACSH has been anti-tobacco. ACSH has taken what it terms a "harm-reduction" stance on tobacco smoking. Associate director Jeff Stier took the opportunity to address the negative long-term effects of smoking by using the case of Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign. It opposed a New York State law that outlawed certain types of smokeless tobacco because, it argued, that would make it harder for adult smokers to quit cigarettes. ACSH also criticized Apple Inc. workers who refused to enter homes where smoking had taken place to make technical repairs out of concern over second-hand smoke. Unlike some public health organizations, ACSH does not support government efforts to ban the use of e-cigarettes.
In 1980, ACSH co-founder Frederick J. Stare was chairman of ACSH's Board of Directors and sought funding from US tobacco giant Philip Morris USA for ACSH's activities. He stated that he believed financially supporting ACSH would be to Phillip Morris' benefit.
ACSH's team members regularly appear in the media. Editorials from the group have appeared in publications including The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, New York Post, Politico, Investor's Business Daily, The Washington Times, Forbes, National Review and the Weekly Standard. ACSH spokespersons have also appeared on television programs on CNBC, MSNBC, Fox News, ABC, and NY1, among others.
The organization's critics have accused it of being biased in favor of industry. Because of its frequent criticism of environmentalism and "chemophobia", ACSH's critics call it an "industry-friendly" group. In response to such accusations, ACSH claims that "evidence-based science and medicine, sensible health advice, technological progress, and consumer freedom need protection from the nonstop assault of unscientific activist groups."
The Scaife Foundation and John M. Olin Foundation provided ACSH's first financial support in the 1970s. In her address on the 25th Anniversary of ACSH, Dr. Whelan noted that their critics such as Phil Donahue and Barbara Walters accused them of being a "surrogate" of the petrochemical industry and a "shill" for the food industry. To appease their critics, ACSH only accepted funding from private foundations for two years. However, as the media continued to indicate that ACSH was industry-supported, the Board decided on a fundraising policy through which "about 40% of ACSH [funding] comes from private foundations, about 40% from corporations, and the rest of the sale of ACSH publications."
In a 1979 People article, the information director of the FDA is quoted as saying, "Whelan just makes blanket endorsements of food additives. Her organization is a sham, an industry front." In 1980, ACSH co-founder Frederick J. Stare was chairman of ACSH's Board of Directors and sought funding from US tobacco giant Philip Morris USA for ACSH's activities, stating that he believed financially supporting ACSH would be to Phillip Morris' benefit. In the early 1990s, ACSH decided to stop reporting its funding. Their 1991 report shows that many corporations contributed funds. In 1982, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a controversial consumer advocacy group, known to spar with ACSH, published a report on ACSH's practices that stated, "ACSH seems to arrive at conclusions before conducting studies. Through voodoo or alchemy, bodies of scientific knowledge are transmogrified into industry-oriented position statements." CSPI director Michael F. Jacobson said of ACSH, '"This organization promotes confusion among consumers about what is safe and what isn't.... ACSH is using a slick scientific veneer to obscure and deny truths that virtually everyone else agrees with."
In a 1992 internal memo by Whelan disclosed by Consumer Reports, Whelan directed her staff to "ask McNeil Specialty for $10,000 toward sweetener paper" and disclosed that her staff would seek "more CCC [Calorie Control Council] money... to help us get new sweetener booklet out." McNeil Specialty Products (now McNeil Nutritionals) owns the US marketing rights to Splenda, the branded name of the artificial sweetener sucralose; the Calorie Control Council is an industry trade association for producers of artificial sweeteners, fat substitutes, and low-calorie foods. The same memo instructs that staffers give "special attention" to "Mr. McDermott at Searle about meat money."
As of 2005, they had received $90,000 from ExxonMobil. Whelan told John Tierney of the New York Times in 2007 that "ACSH has a diverse funding base - we receive donations from private foundations and individuals and unrestricted (usually very small) grants from corporations. The fastest-growing segment of our funding base is individual consumers who are sick and tired of the almost daily baseless scares - and they write us checks to help support our work." In 2010, Whelan told The New Yorker that about a third of the organization's two million dollar annual budget comes from industry. In 2013, Mother Jones Magazine reported that it received leaked internal financial documents from ACSH, which revealed that 58% of the organization's donations in the period from July 1, 2012 to December 20, 2012 came from corporations and large private foundations, many of which themselves had ties to industries. In addition, the documents revealed that the organization had on numerous occasions directly solicited donations from industry sources on the basis of projected reports on the specific issues in which those companies and industry organizations had such a stake.
In 2005, Mother Jones reported that ACSH's medical director at the time, Gilbert Ross, before being hired by ACSH, had served time in a federal prison camp and had his medical license revoked for Medicare fraud. ACSH responded with an article on its website stating that Ross was remorseful for the role he played in the scam, it had occurred during a period of personal and financial hardship, and had resigned from the fraudulent clinic after only 7 weeks employment. His medical license was reinstated in 2001. He has since retired from ACSH.
On the May 14, 2009 episode of the satirical late night show The Daily Show, correspondent Samantha Bee noted ACSH's opposition to Obama's family's organic garden and the organization's funding by the petroleum, chemical, and pharmaceutical industries.
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- "Council Votes to Boost Butts". The New York Post. October 16, 2009.
- "Latest Excuse Not to Work". Fox Business. November 24, 2009.
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- "Little Crop of Horrors: Samantha Bee reports on Michelle Obama's unhealthy, elitist organic garden". The Daily Show. May 14, 2009.
- Official website
- Tufts Nutrition Navigator review of ACSH
- Daily Show segment on organic gardening featuring an ACSH representative
- Organizational Profile – National Center for Charitable Statistics (Urban Institute)