May 9, 2008 The Pump Handle 0Comment

The Weinberg Group is one of the product defense firms I write about in my new book “Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health.” These firms help polluters and manufacturers of dangerous products avoid regulation – only now the Weinberg Group is not a product defense firm, it’s transformed itself into a “product support” firm.

Changes to the company’s website, like transforming the “Product Defense” category of services to “Product Support,” suggest that the Weinberg Group has a new awareness of its online audience – it’s no longer just potential clients visiting their site, but researchers, lawmakers, and ordinary citizens who might not approve of the firm’s activities. The old description of the Product Defense Practice Group highlights successes in “minimizing the effects of civil and criminal litigation, regulatory and legislative actions,” but that text has disappeared from the current version of that page. Likewise, this entire paragraph has now disappeared from the page devoted to what’s now called the “Support” service area:

THE WEINBERG GROUP knows how critical it is to protect products, markets and revenue streams and to minimize the damage done to corporate image, business and brands. We’ve developed a highly-effective, integrated approach to preparing and defending against attacks on products and processes, averting crises, and diminishing the effects of civil and criminal litigation.

Litigation and regulation may be something that the Weinberg Group’s corporate clients want to avoid, but people who have been or could be harmed by the clients’ products have a different perspective. Take the case of bisphenol A, a chemical used in plastics. There is evidence that it may interfere with the development of children’s brains and reproductive organs, including alterations to breast and prostate tissues that may increase the risk of developing cancer later in life – consequences from which most parents want to protect their children. The companies that make and use bisphenol A are thinking about their sales, though. Concern about the chemical’s safety is something they’d probably rather avoid, and that’s where firms like the Weinberg Group come in.

It’s hardly a new development for manufacturers of dangerous products to hire firms to help them defend their wares in the governmental, judicial, and public relations arenas. The product-defense business was born when public concern arose about the dangers of tobacco smoke; soon, an army of bought-and-paid for scientists was producing studies designed to cast doubt on research showing that smokers were at greater risk for health problems, and PR flacks were highlighting this uncertainty to lawmakers and members of the press.

Since then, new product defense firms have sprung up and defended substances like lead and asbestos and drugs like phenylpropanolamine, which was used in cold and diet medications and long after it was linked to strokes in young women taking it. In fact, the Weinberg Group’s website once bragged that it delayed the FDA’s cancellation of a client’s drug for 10 years. That page disappeared from the firm’s website long before its current makeover, but I kept a copy of it and wrote about it in my book.

Along with my fellow public-health advocates, I’ve been working to make lawmakers, judges, and the public aware of product defense firms’ strategies, with the goal of keeping regulation and litigation strong tools for protecting the public against dangerous products. Attention to the problem is increasing, and might help explain the Weinberg Group’s recent decision to paint itself in a softer light online.

The House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired by Michigan Congressman John Dingell, is investigating the Weinberg Group’s work on bisphenol A. Congressional investigators found that the Weinberg Group was hired by Sunoco, which manufactures bisphenol A, and Chairman Dingell has asked the company to supply him with records related to its work on the chemical.

The issue here is not legality, but credibility. Product defense firms routinely supply studies that regulators, juries, and reporters consider when trying to determine how much of a hazard a product poses. If it becomes clear that these studies were bought and paid for by the companies who stand to lose or gain from the results of regulation, litigation, or public concerns about product, the audiences will view them more critically.

By revamping its website to de-emphasize the firm’s sales pitch – that they will help protect against litigation and regulation — the Weinberg Group is probably trying to make itself appear more credible before lawmakers and reporters who are digging into the research on bisphenol A and other substances implicated in health problems. But for those who think that dangerous substances ought to be regulated and that companies who knowingly market harmful products should face legal penalties, changes in language aren’t enough. It makes no difference if a consulting firm is “supporting” or “defending” a dangerous product, it’s still doing something that can endanger our health. We must keep that in mind when judging these firms.

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