What do Andrew Wakefield and Big Tobacco executives have in common?


I might have wondered what Andrew Wakefield feels about sparking a measles epidemic among a vulnerable population in Minnesota, but I should have known that he would feel exactly like executives of Big Tobacco felts about lung cancer deaths.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]It’s hardly surprising that Wakefield apes the actions of Big Tobacco executives in denying responsibility. The fundamental strategy of anti-vax advocacy comes straight from the Big Tobacco playbook.[/pullquote]

The young mother started getting advice … Don’t let your children get the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella — it causes autism, they said.

Suaado Salah listened. And this spring, her 3-year-old boy and 18-month-old girl contracted measles in Minnesota’s largest outbreak of the highly infectious and potentially deadly disease in nearly three decades. Her daughter, who had a rash, high fever and cough, was hospitalized for four nights and needed intravenous fluids and oxygen.

How could such a thing happen? Even though her sister died from the disease in Somalia, the mother believed that her children couldn’t get the measles in the US.

“I thought: ‘I’m in America. I thought I’m in a safe place and my kids will never get sick in that disease,’ ” said Salah, 26, who has lived in Minnesota for more than a decade.

Anti-vaccine activists repeatedly brought Andrew Wakefield to speak to the community. You may remember Wakefield, now stripped of his medical license, because he published a paper in which he lied about a connection between the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine and autism. Why did he lie? Because he was preparing to market a different vaccine that he was going to claim was safer. Despite the fact that he has been repeatedly and thoroughly discredited, anti-vaxxers still believe him. Not all that surprisingly when you consider anti-vaxxers have a perfect record in their 200 years of existence; they’ve never been right about anything!

So how does Wakefield feel about the harm he has caused:

“The Somalis had decided themselves that they were particularly concerned,” Wakefield said last week. “I was responding to that.”

He maintained that he bears no fault for what is happening within the community. “I don’t feel responsible at all,” he said.

Hmmm, why does that sound familiar? Oh, I remember; that’s the defense that Big Tobacco used for years to disclaim responsibility for lung cancer deaths from cigarettes.

The technique of blaming the victim is outlined in the paper Tobacco Industry Use of Personal Responsibility Rhetoric in Public Relations and Litigation: Disguising Freedom to Blame as Freedom of Choice:

The tobacco industry’s use of explicit personal responsibility rhetoric reached its height in the 1980s, during a wave of consumer litigation in which the tobacco defendants countered injured smokers’ lawsuits with claims that ultimately the responsibility for the consequences of smoking cigarettes belonged to the smoker who voluntarily consumed them.

As a Philip Morris executive wrote in 1985:

It all comes down to the individual’s right to make up his own mind and to take responsibility for his own actions.

It’s hardly surprising that Wakefield apes the actions of Big Tobacco executives in denying responsibility. The fundamental strategy of anti-vax advocacy comes straight from the Big Tobacco playbook.

We have access to tobacco company files that detail marketing strategy, including a memo from the late 1960s that provides an overview:

Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the “body of fact” that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy. Within the business we recognize that a controversy exists. However, with the general public the consensus is that cigarettes are in some way harmful to the health. If we are successful in establishing a controversy at the public level, then there is an opportunity to put across the real facts about smoking and health. (my emphasis)

The memo is startling for its insight. Simply put, tobacco companies did not have to refute the scientific evidence about smoking and cancer; merely creating doubt in the mind of the American consumer was all that was necessary to maintain or increase demand for cigarettes.

It’s the same strategy employed to equally deadly effect by Wakefield and the anti-vax movement.

Doubt is their primary product. They don’t have to refute the scientific evidence about the safety and efficacy of vaccines (nor could they). Merely creating doubt in the mind of the American parent is all that is necessary to promote vaccine hesitancy and refusal. If it’s good enough for tobacco executives in promoting their product, it’s good enough for anti-vaxxers in promoting theirs.

Indeed, the overall strategy of anti-vaxxers maps that of Tobacco industry to a remarkable degree, including:

1. Denying the validity of the overwhelming majority of scientific evidence on the dangers of cigarettes/vaccine refusal.

2. Cherry picking and promoting the tiny fraction of studies that disagree

3. Insisting that science can never provide 100% certainty

4. Claiming the issue is a matter of individual freedom

Anti-vax advocacy has added its own little fillips: framing doubt, the most important product, as a sign of intellectual independence (“doing your own research”) and framing defiance of authority as a good in and of itself.

Andrew Wakefield is no different from tobacco executives — selling a deadly product, denying the scientific evidence, promoting dangerous choices as “freedom,” blaming the victims by invoking personal responsibility — and equally despicable.