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Big Tobacco’s smoke and mirrors revived by Pruitt’s science transparency policy

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It turns out that the tobacco wars never ended.

It has been nearly 25 years since the first state lawsuits were filed against the tobacco industry, revealing that big tobacco had been deliberately seeking to cast unwarranted doubt on the science linking smoking with cancer. The tobacco companies lost that battle, but it is now clear that the war did not end but simply shifted arenas.

{mosads}The same shady tactics are being used today by many of the same characters to try to create false uncertainty about the science demonstrating the public health risks of pollution. And their newest recruit is the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.


EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt recently proposed a new rule that will prevent the EPA from considering any scientific study unless all of its underlying data are made publicly available. Pruitt’s EPA claims this change in policy would improve the transparency and reproducibility of the science guiding agency actions.

In reality, it would preclude EPA from considering many important scientific studies that examine the effects of chemicals and pollutants on human health because they often rely on research whose underlying data cannot be made public because it contains confidential personal medical information.

Using the false mantle of transparency to cast doubt on public health science and create barriers to regulations is not a new idea. It is a decades-old industry trope pioneered by tobacco companies concerned about the increasing number of studies linking tobacco smoke with health problems. Big Tobacco realized the best chance of avoiding regulation lay not in attempting to combat each study as it came out, but rather in changing the standards to which those studies were held. To do this, they sought to use transparency and reproducibility as rhetorical cover to raise questions about the reliability of the science on secondhand smoke.

In a memo written for R.J. Reynolds in 1996, lawyer Chris Horner explained that the goal of this so-called “secret science” strategy is to create “explicit procedural hurdles” that will hinder EPA and other agencies’ review of unfavorable scientific studies. The game-plan described by Horner was famously carried out by a lawyer named Steve Milloy, who for years headed an industry-funded PR group for Phillip Morris called The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASCC),and who has by his own account made a career of advocating for the secret science agenda.  

This tactic of using the banner of “transparency” and “sound science” as a guise to prevent regulation has been enthusiastically adopted and adapted by others seeking to prevent regulation of air pollution, including greenhouse gases. In fact, Horner and Milloy have both gone on to work with an organization called the Energy & Environment Legal Institute (E&E Legal), a coal-funded climate denial group. Following the “secret science” playbook, E&E Legal has weaponized transparency laws in hopes that it can uncover emails it can use to discredit and embarrass climate scientists

While the strategy behind the rule Pruitt proposed in April is not new, what is new is that it now has strong supporters among EPA leadership, and its proponents have significant, direct influence on EPA policy. To illustrate: EPA developed the proposed rule after consultation with staff for House Science Committee Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) who’s tried, and failed, to pass similar legislation. And remember former tobacco lobbyists Chris Horner and Steve Milloy? They were both members of the Trump EPA transition team. Though some members of the press were not allowed at the announcement of this “transparency” initiative, Smith and Milloy were both in attendance.  

This coordinated assault on science in the name of transparency will ultimately harm not only the health of the American people, but the scientific endeavor as a whole. If regulators arbitrarily deny important findings from scientific studies simply because they rely on confidential health information, subsequent policies won’t adequately protect us from pollution or accurately account its public health costs. 

Good scientists may understandably hesitate to pursue important lines of scientific inquiry if doing so will make them targets for regulators, interest groups and legislators who seek to impugn their credibility and troll through their emails looking for ways to publicly embarrass them. When sound science is disparaged and ignored, we all lose. 

Transparency in scientific research and policy making is critically important, and real improvements could be made. In the case of EPA, the agency could respond to legitimate FOIA requests and inquiries from Congress in a complete and timely manner. It could restore the ability of scientists who are EPA grant recipients to serve on advisory committees. It could put back the information about climate change it has removed from its websites. It could ensure that EPA scientists and grantees are allowed to conduct their research without interference, and to discuss it with the public and at professional conferences with their peers.

But restricting the EPA’s ability to consider significant amounts of relevant scientific evidence bearing directly on its core mission is not transparency. It’s smoke and mirrors.

Augusta Wilson is an attorney for the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund.

Tags Big Tobacco Climate change EPA Lamar Smith Pollution Scott Pruitt
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