Hearts and minds

It’s like an old fashioned family feud.

In this case, the “families” are organizations that represent American seniors. But unlike the Hatfields and McCoys who turned a dispute over a pig into a series of bloody confrontations in the 1800’s, this modern feud is waged in the halls of Congress, on the Internet, in print publications, and behind the closed doors of pharmaceutical company boardrooms where multimillion dollar deals are made.

And what does this feud have to do with you? If you’re over the age of 50, all of these groups want your support. But unfortunately, not all of them are what they claim to be.



Trading blows 

The Big Kahuna in this feud is AARP – the 35 million-member senior advocacy group, formerly known by its unabbreviated title: the American Association of Retired Persons. An article that appears in this month’s AARP Bulletin accuses three other non-profit seniors organizations – The United Seniors Association, The Seniors Coalition, and The 60 Plus Association – of being used as fronts for the pharmaceutical industry. According to an AARP investigation, the largest contributors to all three groups are drug companies or organizations that represent drug companies.

But I think that AARP’s implication that USA might be a front group is not really accurate. By definition, a front group misrepresents what they actually stand for. But one visit to the USA web site and it’s clear that its politics bend strongly toward the conservative. So it should come as a surprise to no one that USA supports the conservative political view that the prescription drug benefit within Medicare should be a privatized, market-based plan (which clearly benefits the large drug companies).

In other words, USA is not pretending to be anything other than what it really is. AARP may not agree with USA, but what you see is what you get. Which is much more than can be said for other organizations that appear to exist for only one purpose: to obscure sources of pharmaceutical company funding.

Not exactly on the up & up

I’m not going to dive into the conservative vs. liberal political squabble that these groups are locked in. But within the AARP allegations, I found information that serves as an important warning to anyone who is approached to give support to an organization that claims to represent seniors.

In the weeks before election day 2000, representatives of a company named Bonner & Associates (no connection to Agora President Bill Bonner) made telephone calls to seniors throughout Minnesota asking them to sign an open letter to urge their governor to veto pending prescription drug legislation. Nothing wrong about that, except for the fact that the callers didn’t say anything about Bonner & Associates – they identified themselves as representatives of The 60 Plus Association. But the phone campaign wasn’t even paid for by 60 Plus – it was funded by the international pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.

So 60 Plus lent its name to the project, in order to give the impression that a veto of the legislation was in the best interest of seniors. This accomplished two things: 1) it obscured the political agenda, and 2) it hid Pfizer’s involvement.

Bonner & Associates call themselves grassroots lobbyists, but within the world of lobbying, this type of campaign is known as astro-turfing. In other words: it’s a phony grassroots campaign. And even though it has a distinctly fishy smell to it, it’s perfectly legal.

Obviously, anyone who receives this sort of phone call should ask specific questions and not settle for fuzzy answers. Because instead of lending your name to support an issue that appears to benefit seniors, you may end up supporting the end goal of an international drug corporation without ever knowing it.

What’s in a name?

Astro-turfing is not the only way that drug companies use organizations to front political agendas.

Here’s a good example of what you might call a “pure” front group. In 1999 a nonprofit organization called Citizens for Better Medicare (CBM) was established. If you’re a senior, naturally you want better Medicare, so supporting this group would seem like a no-brainer. And that was exactly CBM’s wish: to encourage people to think with their emotions and not with their brains.

In the months before the 2000 elections, CBM spent millions (sometimes as much as $1 million per week) on ads that encouraged seniors to vote for candidates who supported the market-based prescription drug plan for Medicare. What was not evident in the CBM pitch was that the organization was created and funded by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) – the primary trade association for the pharmaceutical industry in the U.S.

It’s obvious that PhRMA is far more likely to win over the hearts and minds of seniors if they claim to be Citizens for Better Medicare, as opposed to calling themselves what they really are: Lobbyists for Increased Drug Profits.

Knowledge is power

I want to make it clear that I am not taking a position either for or against the Medicare prescription plan. But I do think it’s important for all of us to be aware of schemes like astro-turfing, whatever your political affiliation may be.

Obviously, whenever we see a political campaign ad or receive a phone call to enlist our support in a political cause, we need to ask ourselves: Does this organization really speak for me, or for a corporation hiding behind a false front?

To Your Good Health,

Jenny Thompson
Health Sciences Institute

“U.S. Seniors Group Attacks Pharmaceutical Industry ‘Fronts'” Ray Moynihan, British Medical Journal, 2003: 326-351, 2/15/03
Pulling Strings from Afar – Drug Industry Finances Nonprofit Groups That Claim to Speak for Older Americans” Bill Hogan, AARP Bulletin Online, February 2003
“AARP Funded by Your Tax Dollars” UnitedSeniors.org, February 2003
“New Report Unmasks United Seniors Association as Hired Gun for Drug Industry” Public Citizen, Citizen.org, 7/16/03