The last 50 years have witnessed a proliferation in the number of so-called think tanks operating in America.
Most people hear or read the word “think tank” and conclude – “hey – that must be a group of really smart people!”
One would hope so – right?
Ideally, a think tank is, in fact, supposed to be a group of experts that study a particular subject and then seek to provide consumers, the news media, and government officials with unbiased insights on that topic.
Is that how they work in reality?
In reality – no. A great many think tanks are the creation of special interests seeking to influence public opinion. In many cases, they’re the creation of PR firms seeking to protect or promote a company or industry they serve.
In other words – they are front groups – created to sell products and protect corporate profits.
The past 70 years have witnessed egregious examples of corporations and industries creating “think tanks” with lofty names organized solely to protect the profitability of dangerous products.
What’s this got to do with trial lawyers? Just wait – you’ll see…
Here’s a bit of history.
In 1947, Big Oil created a group called the “Smoke and Fumes Committee” to research the environmental impacts of burning fossil fuels – hoping to shape public opinion on that topic. The goal of the committee (which later became the American Petroleum Institute or API) was to use science and public skepticism to prevent environmental regulations the industry deemed “hasty, costly, and unnecessary.”
What did the “committee” learn from their research? By the 1950s, the API had internally concluded that burning fossil fuels would likely increase CO2 levels in the atmosphere – with significant global impacts. By the late 1960s, API was in possession of research showing that burning fossil fuels was in fact leading to increases of CO2 levels and that “significant temperature changes (were) almost certain to occur by the year 2000,” and “there seems to be no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe.”
We know how this prediction is working out…
Did the industry ever acknowledge this data or warn of us of the risk? Actually, they did just the opposite – giving voice to climate change denial – for decades. It took hard-working trial lawyers from many U.S. states, working with investigative reporters, to uncover the truth and call for penalties.
Let’s look at the tobacco industry.
What do we find? Yup. More think tanks… the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC), the Council for Tobacco Research (CTR), the Center for Indoor Air Research (CIAR), and the Tobacco Institute (TI), among others.
Did you know that as early as the 1920s, a link between tobacco use and cancer had been established. That evidence continued to accumulate in the decades to follow and resulted in U.S Surgeon General, Leroy Burney, holding a televised press conference in 1957 to declare that scientific evidence supported cigarette smoking as a causative factor in lung cancer.
When did the tobacco industry begin to discuss the dangers internally? Industry think tanks knew the dangers as early as the 1930s.
And what was their response to this public health challenge and the growing risk to their profits? Something called the “Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers”.
The “Frank Statement…” was a jointly sponsored print ad published by tobacco manufacturers in January 1954. The advertisement appeared in 448 newspapers in 258 cities, reaching over 43 million Americans. The ad questioned research findings suggesting that smoking caused cancer, promised consumers that cigarettes were safe, and pledged to support “impartial research to investigate allegations that smoking was harmful to human health”.
With the help of industry think tanks, this campaign of aggressive disinformation about the grave health risks of tobacco use continued into the 1990s. Who worked hard to force the truth about tobacco into the light of day and protect consumers? Diligent trial lawyers.
What about the chemical industry? Here again – industry think tanks like the Clairmont Institute and Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (catchy name) were created to the front for the industry on a wide range of issues related to product safety.
And from DDT, to Agent Orange, dioxin, and Roundup, these industry think tanks worked hard to create confusion and doubt, often seeking to discredit scientific findings showing product harm. Again – trial lawyers have led efforts to expose the dangers and protect consumers.
The pharmaceutical industry?
You’ve heard of the epidemic of opioid painkillers use that has left addiction and death in its wake all across Connecticut and the nation? Is it possible there was an industry think tank promoting the aggressive use of pain pills?
Yup. And with a compelling name too…The American Pain Foundation. Coincidentally, just as big drug companies began pushing opioid drugs on physicians and consumers – the American Pain Foundation was born (1997).
Records and interviews show that the American Pain Foundation has worked extremely hard to preserve access to opioid drugs, frustrating those who worry about the risks.
A group now leading efforts to hold the medical community and the drug companies accountable for this “greatest mistake in the history of medicine” – trial lawyers.
And there are other think tanks purporting to be working in the public interest on health – that are instead fronting for drug and device makers… The American Enterprise Institute, Healthcare America, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and others.
Sadly, the list of industries that have created these phony “scientific” front groups goes on and on.
Why does the think tank tactic work?
It works because experts in particular fields are willing to participate in these groups for personal financial gain – setting aside intellectual honesty and consumer safety. And the groups themselves are effective because the media often blindly interviews “expert” spokespeople on complicated or health-related topics often without carefully investigating whether the think tanks and spokespeople they rely on have obvious conflicts of interest.
So next time you are at a party and someone complains about attorneys, remind them how many times trial lawyers, working in the public interest, have stood up to powerful corporate interests and saved lives by exposing dangerous products and industry recklessness and fraud.