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Is There a ‘Secret History of the War on Cancer’? Ask for Yourself

Devra Davis knows a few things about cancer. The director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and the former director of the Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology of the National Academy of Sciences, she has spent her career researching, documenting, and advising about the disease.

In the preface of her new book, The Secret History of the War on Cancer, she describes her relationship with cancer in a less formal way: “I know what cancer looks like, feels like and smells like. Like many of my generation, I am a cancer orphan. The disease cut short the lives of both my parents.”

The result of twenty years of research, Davis’s book tracks the history of cancer studies from before World War II through the early 1990s and doesn’t hesitate to indict major corporations and politicians (as well as her former colleagues), claiming they routinely manipulated and fudged data about cancer-causing agents like benzene and tobacco. Her essential argument is that far too many people get cancer than is necessary and that far too much of the “war on cancer” is devoted to treatment rather than prevention.

Not surprisingly, the book has already prompted significant controversy.

Davis has agreed to field your questions about her book and her research. Leave them in the comments section, and look for answers within the next few days.

In order to prime the pump, here are some highlights from The Secret History of the War on Cancer.

Some of the early leaders of the American Cancer Society and National Cancer Institute left their posts to work directly for the tobacco industry, where they funded major academic research programs throughout the world to foment uncertainty about the dangers of their product right up to the 1990s. While people may think of the ACS as a foremost supporter of research, in 2005 it reported spending less than 10 percent of its nearly $1 billion budget on independent scientific studies.

The life-saving test for cervical cancer, called the Pap smear, was not put into widespread use until more than a decade after it had been proven to prevent this disease, because of fears that it would undermine the private practice of medicine. These delays led to unnecessary surgery or death for millions of women.

Some of the modern studies on workplace causes of cancer, the dangers of medical and environmental hormones, and the cancer-causing properties of tobacco were carried out and published by scientists around 1936, including many who worked in Nazi Germany. In June 1945, Robert R. Kehoe, an Army captain who was a member of the Office of Strategic Services, traveled throughout Germany gathering information on chemical and hormonal hazards for the U.S. Army Field Investigations Unit and the British Secret Service. Sixty years later, these files remain unpublished.

The punishments meted out to war criminals after World War II did not extend to senior officials of some U.S.-German shell firms, such as EthylGemeinschaft, which operated with some slave labor. (Ethyl Corporation was owned by Standard Oil of New Jersey and General Motors.) In the late 1930s, Ethyl and other companies gave their German partners the know-how to produce leaded gasoline and synthetic rubber in direct contravention of U.S. War Department orders. Nazi scientists devised innovative and cruel methods for studying the cancer-causing properties of these and other compounds in their workers, many of whom died in concentration camps….

In the first six years of the twenty-first century, America has tripled the amount of some asbestos products it imports from China, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico. Along with Canada, America is one of the few industrial countries not to have banned asbestos. Today in France, only one in four cases of mesothelioma – a rare tumor believed to be uniquely tied with asbestos exposure — is compensated for workplace exposures. In many industrial countries today, one in three men and half of all women with this disease have no known history of exposure to asbestos.

On tobacco research in the U.S., Davis draws the following conclusion:

During the Nazi era, the Germans tried and failed to enact stringent policies to control tobacco. Their conquerors, despite having full access to German research on tobacco, didn’t even try. In the United States and England after World War II, radio, television and print revenues depended heavily on tobacco advertising, and seven out of every ten men smoked. For men and eventually for women, smoking was seen as a sign of freedom and even, for a while, as a healthful habit. Like many of the strange stories in this book, the failure of democratic societies to tackle one of the most obvious and dangerous hazards of the modern world was no accident. It was the result of a deliberate strategy to manufacture and magnify public doubt about scientific evidence….

Working first with medical experts … the tobacco strategists counted on their ability to hire leading scientists who did not want to believe that smoking was harmful. With such an impressive front line, tobacco sympathizers carefully crafted doubt about what evidence is required before we can say that a given agent truly is a true threat to human health.

The strategy of fomenting doubt about the role of tobacco in lung cancer extended, on occasion, to support for research on the ability of chemicals to cause the same disease. This practice too continued for decades. In 1979, when I served as scientific director of the Environmental Law Institute, the Tobacco Institute’s Fred Panzer offered me funds to study lung cancer in the chemical industry, so long as I not consider the role of tobacco. I declined; many others did not.

Davis also has harsh words for the legal system’s handling of cancer lawsuits:

Brilliant, very well-paid lawyering has produced a highly restrictive set of rules regarding what sorts of evidence provide proof that any one thing causes another. Much of the real world is shut out. Centuries-old knowledge about the causes of cancer, accepted by scientists and businesses alike in 1936, is now inadmissible in court — not because it has been disproved, but because it has been superseded by legal maneuvers and disqualified by a subtle shift in what is considered proof of harm.

ADDENDUM: The responses to these questions can be found here.