Sunscreen Makes For Greasy Business


This is the second part of a two part story. Read the first instalment here.

What could be gained from making alarmist links between nano-precaution and "deadly skin cancers"? Friends of the Earth (FoE) had its suspicions, and lodged an FOI request. The fruits of these requests aren’t bound by gag clauses. And the hundreds of released pages of emails and correspondence tell a story of what can be seen as a scare-campaign dressed up as government research.

Some correspondence is missing and others are heavily redacted, but the documents show clearly that Cormick and two US colleagues linked nanotech fears to skin cancer well before he drafted the survey questions and committed public funds to the research. It is explicit from the first email onwards that FoE was the direct target of this project. 

Under a soft light, Cormick et al’s early reasoning might be seen as a quest to show whether people fearful of nano particles are less likely to use sunscreen.

A harsher interpretation, informed by evidence from previous biotech sector campaigns, could be summarised like this: if we produce evidence that people who fear nanoparticles are risking deadly skin cancer, we can paint those fearmongering NGOs as irresponsible. Particularly FoE’s nano-safety campaign. FoE is mentioned repeatedly as a target in initial discussions and later ministerial briefings. One of the two US colleagues who corresponded with Cormick is known for his published stoushes with FoE.

The NGO-fearmongering-equals-deadly-consequences tactic has been used before

The biotech sector, in which Craig Cormick has worked as PR for many years (and which NETS still promotes), routinely portrays groups who campaign against GM industrial products as anti-science fearmongerers who are starving third-world children, ruining economic prosperity and depriving farmers of their livelihoods.

And when the nano-fearmongering-equals-deadly-cancer campaign first hatched, other bodies quickly got on-message. Last month The Australian reported:

"Terry Slevin, chairman of the Cancer Council’s National Skin Cancer Committee, said Friends of the Earth was driving a "fear campaign" that risked scaring people away from sunscreens that were known to prevent cancer deaths."

Terry Slevin, too, featured in the FOI documents. In email exchanges, Ministerial SAC members ask Cormick why he hadn’t consulted them about the project during the last teleconference on 13 December. He responds that "the project didn’t exist yet". The documents show the project was hatched in conversations before 11 November. 

Let’s look more closely at what the FOI documents reveal about the survey process.

When Cormick commissions a company to put the survey online, the company advises him that preliminary responses show "while people believe it’s more risky to use sunscreens with nanoparticles, they would still rather use them than nothing at all." He nonetheless stays on-message in his draft media releases. 

When he first commissions the survey, he requests beefed-up sampling of male adolescents who, according to an attached article in the files, are the least-likely users of sunscreen. He later changes his mind, but Cormick is so eager to release his project in time to present it at an international nanotech conference that the final broad sampling method is changed late into the data collection, in order to speedily fulfill a sample quota of 1000. An Estimates hearing is later told the sampling was "random" and "representative".  

In the documents, Cormick applies to have the media release issued from Minister Greg Combet’s office, but the office rejects it as not "appropriate". It is issued instead by NETS in consultation with other public bodies. Cormick’s email "to" and "cc" fields suggest he drafted them in consultation with Ego Pharmaceuticals (producers of suncreens). There is explicit consultation with the Australian Self Medication Industry (which represents non-prescription pharmacy products) — but the FOI documents released about exchanges with industry bodies are heavily redacted and incomplete. FoE has requested the complete exchange.

In Cormick’s email exchanges and later ministerial briefings, there are varying accounts of how the project originated. In some exchanges the survey is described as a joint research project with Cormick’s US colleagues. The Economics Legislation Committee is later told the survey arose from Cancer Council concerns.

The departmental responses to questions by Senator Di Natale state that the project was devised to "assess the impacts of risk messages regarding nanotechnology and sunscreens on the public" and useful "for analysis to show what forms of sun screen protection respondents with concerns regarding nanoparticle risk may use." The latter was not apparent in the releases or filtered data: conversely, after the survey, Cormick emails to his US colleague: "I think we’ve missed one issue, that is, if people have heard about nano sunscreen and don’t use any sunscreen as a result (13 per cent of those) — do they turn to another form of skin protection instead?"

All this and more can found in the FOI document.

No doubt NETS, backed by a big public budget, will have the opportunity for a considered riposte to this story.

Disclosure: Katherine Wilson has worked with Gene Ethics, one of NETS’ key stakeholders, and she has also accepted  commissioned work for a biotechnology company in which her family owns shares.

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