The American Council on Science and Health is a Corporate Front Group

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Updated in July 2019

The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) calls itself a “pro-science consumer advocacy organization” and media outlets often quote the group as an independent science source; however, documents described in this fact sheet establish that ACSH is corporate front group that solicits money from tobacco, chemical, cosmetic, pharmaceutical and other companies in exchange for defending and promoting their products. The group does not disclose its funding.

Key documents:

  • Emails from 2015 released via discovery reveal that Monsanto funded ACSH and asked the group to help defend glyphosate.
  • Leaked financial documents from 2012 establish that ACSH solicits money from corporations for product defense campaigns. Donors include a wide array of companies and industry groups.
  • Emails from 2009 show that ACSH solicited $100,000 from Syngenta to write a paper and book about Syngenta’s pesticide atrazine. In 2011, ACSH released a book by Jon Entine similar to the project described in the email.
  • Syngenta and Monsanto have been regular contributors to ACSH over the years, the emails show.

Monsanto funds ACSH to defend Monsanto products

Emails released in April 2019 reveal that Monsanto agreed to fund ACSH in 2015 and asked the group to help defend glyphosate from cancer concerns raised by the International Agency for Research. ACSH agreed to do so, and later attacked the cancer report as a “scientific fraud.” The emails illuminate ACSH’s reliance on corporate funding and efforts to please its funders. ACSH’s former acting director Gil Ross (who spent time in jail for Medicaid fraud) wrote to a Monsanto executive, “Each and every day, we work hard to prove our worth to companies such as Monsanto.” Ross wrote:

Emails also show that Monsanto executives paid ACSH despite their discomfort with the group. Monsanto’s senior science lead Daniel Goldstein championed ACSH to his colleagues, and sent them links to 53 ACSH articles, two books and a pesticide review he described as as “EXTREMELY USEFUL.” Goldstein wrote:

Key player in Monsanto’s propaganda network

An award-winning investigation by Le Monde into Monsanto’s “war on science” to defend glyphosate named the American Council on Science and Health among the “well known propaganda websites” that played a key role in attacking the scientists who raised cancer concerns. In May 2017, plaintiffs’ attorneys suing Monsanto over glyphosate cancer concerns stated in a brief: “Monsanto quietly funnels money to ‘think tanks’ such as the ‘Genetic Literacy Project’ and the ‘American Council on Science and Health,’ organizations intended to shame scientists and highlight information helpful to Monsanto and other chemical producers.”

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know reveal that Monsanto initially chose ACSH to publish a series of pro-GMO papers that were assigned to professors by Monsanto and “merchandized” by a PR firm to heavily promote them as independent. Monsanto executive Eric Sachs wrote to the professors: “To ensure that the papers have the greatest impact, the American Council for Science and Health is partnering with CMA Consulting to drive the project. The completed policy briefs will be offered on the ACSH website … CMA and ACSH also will merchandize the policy briefs, including the development of media specific materials, such as op-eds, blog postings, speaking engagements, events, webinars, etc.” The papers were eventually published by Genetic Literacy Project with no disclosure of Monsanto’s role.

In a report from the U.S. House of Representatives, congressional investigators stated that Monsanto uses “industry trade groups, such as CropLife and industry front groups, such as Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review as platforms of support for industry spokespersons.”

Leaked ACSH docs reveal corporate-defense funding strategy

A leaked 2012 ACSH financial summary reported by Mother Jones revealed that ACSH has received funding from a large number of corporations and industry groups with a financial stake in the science messaging ACSH promotes — and showed how ACSH solicits corporate donations for quid pro quo product-defense campaigns. For example, the document outlines:

  • Plans to pitch the Vinyl Institute which “previously supported chlorine and health report”
  • Plans to pitch food companies for a messaging campaign to oppose GMO labeling
  • Plans to pitch cosmetic companies to counter “reformulation pressures” from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
  • Efforts to court tobacco and e-cigarette companies

Mother Jones reported, “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.” Funding details:

  • ACSH donors in the second half of 2012 included Chevron, Coca-Cola, the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation, Dr. Pepper/Snapple, Bayer Cropscience, Procter and Gamble, Syngenta, 3M, McDonald’s, and tobacco conglomerate Altria. ACSH also pursued financial support from Pepsi, Monsanto, British American Tobacco, DowAgro, ExxonMobil Foundation, Philip Morris International, Reynolds American, the Koch family-controlled Claude R. Lambe Foundation, the Dow-linked Gerstacker Foundation, the Bradley Foundation and Searle Freedom Trust.
  • Reynolds American and Phillip Morris International were the two largest donors listed in the documents.

Syngenta funding, Syngenta defense

In 2011, ACSH published a book about “chemophobia” written by Jon Entine, who is now the executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, another front group that works with Monsanto. Entine’s ACSH book defended atrazine, a pesticide manufactured by Syngenta, which was funding ACSH.

A 2012 Mother Jones article describes the circumstances leading up to the book. The article by Tom Philpott, based in part on internal company documents obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy, describes Syngenta’s PR efforts to get third-party allies to spin media coverage of atrazine.

In one email from 2009, ACSH staff asked Syngenta for an additional $100,000 – “separate and distinct from general operating support Syngenta has been so generously providing over the years” – to produce an atrazine-friendly paper and “consumer-friendly booklet” to help educate media and scientists.

Email from ASCH staffer Gil Ross to Syngenta about proposed atrazine project:

A year and a half later, ACSH published Entine’s book with a press release that sounds similar to the project Ross described in his solicitation email to Syngenta: “The American Council on Science and Health is pleased to announce a new book and companion friendly, abbreviated position paper” in response to the “irrational fear of chemicals.” Author Jon Entine denied any relationship with Syngenta and told Philpott he had “no idea” Syngenta was funding ACSH.

ACSH personnel

  • ACSH’s longtime “Medical/Executive DirectorDr. Gilbert Ross was convicted in a scheme to defraud the Medicaid system prior to joining ACSH. See court documents about Dr. Ross’ multiple fraud convictions and sentencing, and article in Mother Jones “Paging Dr. Ross” (2005). Dr. Ross was found to be a “highly untrustworthy individual” by a judge who sustained the exclusion of Dr. Ross from Medicaid for 10 years (see additional references and court document).
  • In June 2015, Hank Campbell took over ACSH leadership from acting president (and convicted felon) Dr. Gilbert Ross. Campbell worked for software development companies before starting the website Science 2.0 in 2006. In his 2012 book with Alex Berezow, “Science Left Behind: Feel Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti Science Left,” Campbell describes his background: “six years ago… I decided I wanted to write science on the Internet … with nothing but enthusiasm and a concept, I approached world famous people about helping me reshape how science could be done, and they did it for free.” Campbell left suddenly under unknown circumstances in December 2018. Read more about Campbell here.
  • Campbell’s book co-author, Alex Berezow, is now vice president of scientific affairs at ACSH.  He is a founding editor of Real Clear Science and is on the USA Today editorial board of contributors but USA Today does not disclose Berezow’s ACSH affiliation or ACSH’s corporate funding despite repeated complaints (more info below).

Leaders and advisors: tobacco ties and climate science denial  

The ACSH board of trustees includes Fred L. Smith Jr., founder of the Competitive Enterprises Institute, a leading promoter of climate science denial and a group that has received millions of dollars from Exxon Mobile and dark money funding vehicle Donors Trust.  Smith and CEI also have a history of fighting against tobacco regulations and soliciting money from the tobacco industry, according to documents from the UCSF Truth Tobacco Industry Documents archive. 

James Enstrom and Geoffrey Kabat, two epidemiologists who took money from tobacco companies and wrote studies defending tobacco products, also have ACSH ties. Dr. Enstrom is a member of the ACSH board of trustees and Dr. Kabat serves on the “health board of scientific advisors“. Both scientists have “long standing financial and other working relationships with the tobacco industry,” according to a paper in BMJ Tobacco Control.

In a widely cited 2003 paper in BMJ, Kabat and Enstrom concluded that secondhand smoke does not increase the risk of lung cancer and heart disease. The study was sponsored in part by the Center for Indoor Air Research (CIAR), a tobacco industry group. Although that funding was disclosed, a follow-up analysis in BMJ Tobacco Control found that the disclosures by Enstrom and Kabat “did not provide the reader with a full picture of the tobacco industry’s involvement with the study authors.” The paper details numerous financial ties between Enstrom and the tobacco industry.

Emails from 2014 feature Dr. Enstrom discussing with famous climate science denier Fred Singer ideas to attack and discredit two scientists who were involved in the film “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming,” and whether to try to stop the release of the film with a lawsuit. For more information, see DeSmog blog, “Tobacco Gun for Hire James Enstrom, Willie Soon and the Climate Deniers Attack on Merchants of Doubt” (March 2015).

Dr. Kabat is also on the board of directors of the parent organization of the Genetic Literacy Project, a front group that works with Monsanto on PR projects while claiming to be independent. Read more about his work in our fact sheet, Geoffrey Kabat’s Ties to Tobacco and Chemical Industry Groups

Incorrect statements about science 

American Council on Science and Health has claimed:

  • “There is no evidence that exposure to secondhand smoke involves heart attacks or cardiac arrest.” Winston-Salem Journal, 2012
  • “there is no scientific consensus concerning global warming.” ACSH, 1998 (Greenpeace has described ACSH a “Koch Industries climate denial front group”)
  • fracking “doesn’t pollute water or air.” Daily Caller, 2013
  • “There has never been a case of ill health linked to the regulated, approved use of pesticides in this country.” Tobacco Documents Library, UCSF, The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition document page 9, 1995
  • “There is no evidence that BPA [bisphenol A] in consumer products of any type, including cash register receipts, are harmful to health.” ACSH, 2012
  • exposure to mercury, a potent neurotoxin, “in conventional seafood causes no harm in humans.” ACSH, 2010.

Recent ACSH messaging continues in the same theme, denying risk from products that are important to the chemical, tobacco and other industries, and making frequent attacks on scientists, journalists and others who raise concerns.

  • A 2016 “top junk science” post by ACSH denies that chemicals can cause endocrine disruption; defends e-cigarettes, vaping and soda; and attacks journalists and the Journal of the American Medical Association.

USA Today gives ACSH a platform 

USA Today continues to publish columns by ACSH staffers Hank Campbell and Alex Berezow without disclosing their funding ties to corporations whose interests they defend. In February 2017, 30 health, environmental, labor and public interest groups wrote to the editors of USA Today asking the paper to stop providing a platform of legitimacy to ACSH or at least provide full disclosures about who funds the group.

The letter states:

  • “We are writing to express our concern that USA Today continues to publish columns written by members of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a corporate-funded group with a long history of promoting corporate agendas that are at odds with mainstream science. USA Today should not be helping this group promote its false identity as a credible, independent source on science. Your readers deserve accurate information about what and whom this group represents, as they reflect on the content of the columns.”
  • “These are no idle allegations. Many of the undersigned health, environmental, labor and public interest groups have been tracking ACSH’s work over the years. We have documented instances in which the group has worked to undermine climate change science, and deny the health threats associated with various products, including second-hand smokefrackingpesticides and industrial chemicals – all without being transparent about its corporate backers.”
  • We note that financial documents obtained by Mother Jones show that ACSH has received funding from tobacco, chemical, pharmaceutical and oil corporations. Public interest groups have reported that ACSH received funding from the Koch Foundations between 2005-2011, and released internal documents showing that ACSH solicited $100,000 from Syngenta in 2009 to write favorably about its product atrazine – a donation that was to be “separate and distinct from general operating support Syngenta has been so generously providing over the years.”
  • “At a time when the public is questioning the legitimacy of the news media, we believe it is vital for publications such as USA Today to follow the highest standards of journalistic ethics and serve the public with as much truth and transparency as possible. We respectfully ask you to refrain from publishing further columns authored by members of the American Council on Science and Health, or at the very least require that the individuals identify the organization accurately as a corporate-funded advocacy group.”

As of December 2017, USA Today editorial page editor Bill Sternberg has declined to stop publishing ACSH columns and the paper has repeatedly provided inaccurate or incomplete disclosures for the columns, and failed to notify its readers about ACSH’s funding from corporations whose agenda they promote.

Newsweek’s Bizarre Standards for Opinion Writers

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March 2019 update: Newsweek gets ad money from Bayer; publishes op-eds favorable to Bayer

By Stacy Malkan

Facts don’t matter in commentaries printed by Newsweek as long as the writer “seems genuine.” That’s the troubling implication of an email exchange I had with Nicholas Wapshott, the opinion editor at Newsweek, when I raised concerns about an op-ed attacking organic food written by an author with undisclosed pesticide industry connections.

The organic hit piece by Henry I. Miller ran in Newsweek on Jan. 9, several months after the New York Times revealed that Miller published an article in Forbes that had been ghostwritten by Monsanto. Forbes severed its ties with Miller and deleted all his articles from their site. Miller disclosed none of that in his Newsweek article even though he spent several paragraphs attacking Danny Hakim, the New York Times reporter who revealed the ghostwriting scandal.

Miller made false claims about organic farming using pesticide industry sources.

The op-ed went downhill from there, using pesticide industry sources to make false claims about organic farming and attacking people who appeared on a “target” list developed for Monsanto by Jay Byrne, the company’s former director of corporate  communications. Miller quoted Byrne directly in the piece with no mention of the Monsanto affiliation.

None of this appears to bother Wapshott, according to an on-the-record email exchange.

Miller ‘Flatly Denies’ Facts 

On Jan. 22, I emailed Wapshott to ask if he was aware that:

  • The New York Times exposed Miller for publishing an article in Forbes under his own name that had been ghostwritten by Monsanto, and that Forbes has since deleted all his articles
  • A 2015 Monsanto PR plan that discusses the company’s plans to defend glyphosate against cancer concerns lists as its first action item: “Engage Henry Miller
  • A source Miller used in his Newsweek article, Jay Byrne, is a former Monsanto employee (not identified as such). According to emails I reported here, Byrne worked with Monsanto to set up a group of “independent” academics who were secretly funded by industry. The front group called Academics Review attacked the organic industry as a “marketing scam,” the same theme in Miller’s Newsweek article.
  • Miller has a long history of partnering with – and pitching his PR services to – corporations that need help convincing the public their products aren’t dangerous and don’t need to be regulated.

Here is Wapshott’s response: “Hi Stacy, I understand that you and Miller have a long history of dispute on this topic. He flatly denies your assertions. Nicholas”

I wrote back seeking clarification.

Hi Nicholas, to clarify:

Miller denies he published a column ghostwritten by Monsanto under his own name in Forbes and that Forbes has since deleted all his articles? (NYT story, Retraction Watch story)

Miller denies the Monsanto’s PR plan to address the IARC cancer rating of glyphosate lists “Engage Henry Miller” on page 2, item 3?

Miller denies that Jay Byrne, the former Monsanto employee not identified as such in his Newsweek article, was involved with setting up Academics Review as a front group? (Byrne has not denied writing these emails.)

Miller and I have disagreed yes, but the above are facts, and provable. Do you think it’s fair to your readers to continue to publish his work without disclosing his ties to Monsanto?

Wapshott responded, “I think so. I have met Miller and he seems genuine. And I find it hard to believe that his flat denial is a lie. We would need a full trial to determine the truth and those resources are, thank goodness, beyond our means.”

Standards for COI Disclosure?  

I find it hard to believe that his flat denial is a lie.

I wrote back to Wapshott once more, pointing out that a trial is not necessary in the Miller case, since the facts have been established by reporting in the New York Times and corroborated by Forbes’ spokeswoman Mia Carbonell, who told the Times:

“All contributors to Forbes.com sign a contract requiring them to disclose any potential conflicts of interest and only publish content that is their own original writing. When it came to our attention that Mr. Miller violated these terms, we removed his blog from Forbes.com and ended our relationship with him.”

Does Newsweek have a similar policy to require writers to disclose potential conflicts of interest and use only their own writing? Wapshott did not respond to that inquiry. (Less than a week later, there was “upheaval at Newsweek” amid staff changes and financial troubles. Political editor Matthew Cooper wrote in his resignation letter, Some editors “recklessly sought clicks at the expense of accuracy, retweets over fairness … I’ve never seen more reckless leadership.”)

A Problem Far Beyond Newsweek

Weak, confused, non-existent standards for disclosing conflicts of interest is a problem that goes far beyond Newsweek. For a 2015 article in CJR, journalist Paul Thacker asked 18 media organizations that cover science to describe their disclosure standards for both journalists and the sources they use in their stories, and 14 responded.

“The responses present a jumbled mix of policies,” Thacker wrote. “Some draw a bright line — preventing journalists from having financial ties to any outside sources. Others allow some expenses and speaking fees. To complicate matters further, some organizations have written rules, while others consider incidents on a case-by-case basis. Standards advocated by professional societies also seem to differ.”

Some outlets apply different standards to reporters and columnists, as I learned when I asked why Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel can take speaking fees from agrichemical industry groups while writing about that industry as part of her regular column beat. Reporters at Washington Post aren’t allowed to do that, but in the case of columnists, the editor decides.

It’s all very murky. And some outlets are clearly crossing a bright line by publishing the views of groups and people who work with corporations to promote pro-industry science views without telling readers about the corporate collaboration.

Henry Miller’s attack on organic food in Newsweek is one example. Another is USA Today’s regular publication of science columns from the American Council on Science and Health, a front group for the tobacco, chemical, fossil fuel, pharmaceutical and other industries seeking to discredit scientific information about the harm of their products.

USA Today Has Bizarre Standards for Opinion Writers Too 

In February 2017, two dozen health, environmental, labor and public interest groups wrote to the editors of USA Today asking the paper to stop publishing science columns by the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), or at least provide full disclosures about who funds the group.

Leaked financial documents fro 2012 reveal that ACSH solicits money from corporations to defend and promote their products; for example, ACSH spins science on fracking, e-cigarettes, toxic cosmetics and agrichemical industry products, and solicits funding from those industries in exchange. Recent reporting establishes that ACSH works with Monsanto on messaging campaigns.

“USA Today should not be helping this group promote its false identity as a credible, independent source on science,” the two dozen groups wrote to the editors. “Your readers deserve accurate information about what and whom this group represents, as they reflect on the content of the columns.”

Nearly a year later, USA Today is still publishing columns by ACSH staff and still failing to notify its readers about ACSH’s funding from corporations whose agenda they promote.

In an email response dated March 1, 2017, USA Today Editorial Page Editor Bill Sternberg explained:

“To the best of our knowledge, all of the columns in question were authored or co-authored by Alex Berezow, a longtime member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Mr. Berezow has written some 25 op-eds for us since 2011, and we consider him to be a credible voice on scientific issues. He holds a PhD in microbiology from the University of Washington, was the founding editor of RealClearScience and has contributed to a number of mainstream outlets.”

Berezow is now a senior fellow at ACSH, and his “@USAToday contributor” status appears in his bio on Twitter, where he frequently attacks critics of the pesticide industry, for example this recent vile tweet featuring a sexually graphic illustration of a nurse giving a patient a coffee enema.

Does USA Today really want to be associated with this type of science communication?

Integrity and Transparency in Science Reporting

News outlets can do better than these examples at Newsweek and USA Today, and they must do better. They can start by refusing to publish columns by corporate front groups and PR surrogates who pose as independent science thinkers.

They can implement clear and strong policies that require all columnists and journalists to disclose potential conflicts of interest for themselves and the sources they cite in their work.

At a time when the public is questioning the legitimacy of the news media, it is more important than ever for all publications to follow the highest standards of journalistic ethics and serve the public with as much truth and transparency as possible.

Stacy Malkan is co-director and co-founder of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit public interest, consumer and public health research group.