The pharmaceutical industry is no stranger to fake news

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Paul Thacker, STAT News, January 30, 2018

Accusations of “fake news” are all the rage now, with people often throwing around the term when they read an article that tells them something they don’t want to hear. But an entire industry called “product defense,” created years ago by the tobacco industry, uses falsehoods and misdirection to protect companies from bad media and regulatory scrutiny. The pharmaceutical industry is no stranger to these tactics.

Document archives have revealed how tobacco companies helped create and hone product defense strategies. In my years as a reporter and during a stint as an investigator for the U.S. Senate, I’ve seen them deployed by a range of industries.

I fell into this world back in 2005, while working as an editor for the news section of Environmental Science & Technology, the top journal in the field of environmental science. After spending weeks digging through the tobacco archive, I wrote a story about Steven J. Milloy, a columnist for FoxNews.com who ran a website called JunkScience.com and headed a shady organization called The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC). In a 1993 letter, the public relations firm APCO explained how it launched TASSC “to expand and assist Philip Morris in its efforts with issues in targeted states in 1994.”

While I never learned if Milloy had direct ties to pharmaceutical companies, he had published a book called “Silencing Science” that argued regulatory agencies like the Food and Drug Administration had “eliminated science from public policy.” Milloy was also one of the early defenders of Vioxx, arguing that a study that caused the drug to be withdrawn for increasing the risk of heart attacks was a “tremendous overreaction.”

My story linked to minutes of a meeting that TASCC had with Monsanto, as well as a letter Milloy wrote projecting that future goals of TASCC would be to sponsor forums on “sound science” at several science societies. Ironically, Milloy had come to my attention after he had been chosen as a judge for a journalism contest run by American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest science society.

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