Public interest groups care about headlines, not people

Richard Berman President, Berman and Company
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It’s been an especially silly season for “public interest” groups trying to protect us from harm. Headlines have been even crazier than usual this year.

Consider the way sunscreen, one of the most widely used and widely praised products on the market, has been treated. As summer draws to a close and the kids prepare to head back to school, you might be tempted to go to the beach and enjoy a nice day under the hot sun. Like any responsible parent, you’ll pack sunscreen — horrible, non-protective, possibly cancer-causing sunscreen, that is.

That’s what you might think after reading some of the stories about the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) most recent annual sunscreen guide. The EWG has a history of hyping fake threats from chemicals; their target this year was “retinyl palmitate,” a derivative of the dangerous substance more commonly known as “vitamin A.” Though parents have nothing to fear — the head of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society said the EWG was “making toxic mountains out of molehills” — it’s fair to wonder (as the Skin Cancer Foundation did) whether or not the EWG was doing more harm than good by sowing confusion about the health benefits of cancer-blocking sunscreens.

SPF-laden creams aren’t alone in being attacked: the San Francisco city council and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) have launched a full-frontal assault on Happy Meals. CSPI has threatened to sue McDonalds if it doesn’t stop including toys with its Happy Meals, and San Francisco is considering a ban on including toys with meals that don’t meet incredibly strict nutritional requirements.

Pushing for the introduction of Morose Meals in fast food chains across the country is the food police at their silliest and most annoying. Eliminating fast food entirely would have no effect on childhood obesity — a study from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis found that “living near a fast food outlet had little effect on weight” while living near recreational areas correlated to a three-to-six pound loss in an eight-year-old boy — but it would set liberal minds at ease.

Miniature Barbie dolls and GI Joe action figures aren’t the only small plastic items falsely being accused of causing obesity; a pair of authors promoting “The New American Diet” have attempted to link American weight-gain to the presence of phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA). Present in plastic, makeup, and PVC plumbing, these chemicals are both ubiquitous and utterly safe.

The Wall Street Journal got to the heart of the matter when one of their editors wrote that “There’s no doubt obesity is a public health problem, but its causes are myriad and complex. By ringing the alarm bells based on insufficient and inconclusive evidence, environmentalists have subverted serious discussion of the issue — and are on track to create another green scare.”

Trumpeting an everyday product’s safety doesn’t sell books or nab blaring headlines. And without the public outrage that those bestsellers and bold-faced headlines whip up, it’s impossible for these “public interest” groups — and the board members drawing six-figure salaries they employ — to convince left-wing philanthropies with nine-figure endowments to cut checks for half a million dollars.

Until these charities wise up and stop dispensing funds to frauds like the EWG and CSPI, the silly season will only get sillier. Here’s looking forward to next year’s headlines: “Tap water: Deadly menace!”

(Oh, wait…)

Rick Berman is the executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom.