Clean Air Villain of the Month

November 2001


(Washington, D.C. November 27, 2001) - What does Vick's VapoRub have to do with a bogus skin cancer scare and a pro-polluter attack on clean air standards?

They all lead us to the subject of this month's

Clean Air Villain of the Month

: the American Enterprise Institute-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies.

This polluter-friendly think tank earned this dubious distinction for its repeated attempts to undermine the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's public health standards for smog by making the bizarre argument that cleaning up smog could markedly increase skin cancer.

Earlier this month, EPA publicly dismissed the preposterous skin-cancer scare, noting there was "substantial bias" in the analysis prepared by the Joint Center.

We anticipate that EPA's adversaries at the Joint Center will continue the attack in order to further delay EPA's ability to enforce the tough smog standards set four years ago and the resulting health benefits.

Here's the quick history: Polluter groups had seized on the bogus cancer claim as part of their effort to derail the smog standards. They claimed -- based on a highly questionable calculation by a Department of Energy staffer -- that smog actually produced health benefits because it blocked ultraviolet rays. The bogus skin cancer argument was used by two reactionary federal appeals court judges as part of their reasoning to set the standards aside in 1999. (These judges, creative in their own way, also adopted another bogus argument when they ruled that EPA had exceeded its constitutional authority. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled, in a decision written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the High Court's leading conservative, that the standards were indeed constitutional.)

EPA chose not to appeal the skin cancer argument, deciding instead to reply directly to the court. In the last proposed rule ever signed by then-EPA Administrator Carol Browner, the agency said, in effect, that the Joint Center and its polluter allies had cooked up junk science -- and that the cancer scare was no reason to relax the smog standards. The Bush Administration froze Browner's proposal. Nine long months later, the Bush EPA finally said it agreed with Browner's assessment and proposed to keep the tough smog standards.

Polluter groups are already gearing up to fight the proposal, because they realize EPA legally can't enforce the smog standards until this issue is officially resolved. EPA still must take public comment on its proposal before it can submit a final rule and response to the court.

Since the Joint Center is likely to be in the thick of things, it may be worth a moment to explore the Center's parentage. It was created several years ago with a half-million dollar grant to the American Enterprise Institute from a little-known non-profit called the Smith Richardson Foundation. The Foundation continues as one of the Joint Center's chief underwriters. (The Joint Center, for the record, describes its mission as seeking "to hold lawmakers and regulators accountable for their decisions by providing thoughtful, objective analyses of existing regulatory programs and new regulatory proposals.")

The Smith Richardson Foundation was created by H. Smith Richardson, who made his fortune selling Vicks VapoRub, invented by his father. As the Foundation notes in its official "history," Richardson was a strong believer in a "free enterprise system" that "permitted the maximum scope for industry. It was these qualities which enabled him to transform his father's small mortar-and-pestle drug manufacturing business into an industrial concern of international stature."

The Foundation notes that it "continues to support programs that are consistent with the vision of its Founder."

It is understandable that the conservative American Enterprise Institute would seek funding from an anti-regulatory source, but it's a pity that the Brookings Institution, once esteemed for its intellectual objectivity, has lowered itself to participate in this foundation-funded attack on clean air health protections.

In case you were wondering, The Smith Richardson Foundation derives most of its income from its diversified stock holdings, including from numerous companies that have controversial air emissions and/or are members of business trade associations that invoked the skin cancer scare argument in lawsuits against the smog standards. At the end of 2000, its holdings included AES Corp. (involved in a major air pollution controversy in California), Alcoa (embroiled in a huge air pollution controversy in Texas), Allegheny Energy, Anheuser-Busch. Apache Oil, Cabot Oil & Gas, Cinergy (sued by the Justice Department for clean air violations), Consol Energy, DTE Energy (which testified in the Senate Nov. 15 in favor of weakening the Clean Air Act), Enron, General Electric (which has lobbied heavily against air pollution controls), Georgia Pacific, and Procter & Gamble (periodically a corporate leader in opposing clean air controls and, coincidentally, the current maker of Vick's VapoRub).

When we were kids, they told us Vick's VapoRub would help us breathe easier. Apparently times have changed.