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Flying the Koop: A Surgeon General's Reputation On the Line
Even today, nearly a decade after C. Everett Koop ceased to serve as the U.S. Surgeon General, his name and face remain identifiable--more so than any other Surgeon General.
Koop, a Reagan appointee, won the admiration of many Americans with his blunt, clear statements about the dangers of tobacco and AIDS at a time when official government pronouncements about health seemed limited to occasional photo opportunities with Arnold Schwarzennegger.
As one of the few conservatives who shared Koop's anti-tobacco fervor, Elizabeth Whelan built a strong personal bond with Koop, whom she calls a "close colleague."
In 1987, she was one of the conservatives who rose to Koop's defense when right-wingers attacked him for daring to publicly recommend condom use for AIDS prevention. Far-right guru Phyllis Schlafly accused him of promoting "safe fornication with condoms" as "a cover-up for the homosexual community."
"I hate to be in a public debate with Phyllis Schlafly, since we have a lot of things in common," Whelan responded, "But she is wrong about Dr. Koop. . . . In everything I've read in Dr. Koop's written speeches, he stresses monogamy as the first line of defense against AIDS."
ACSH and Koop also shared common ground during what Koop calls the "great Alar scare" of 1989, when the Natural Resources Defense Council raised consumer concerns about the use of Alar, a carcinogenic pesticide that was being sprayed on apples. The Hill & Knowlton PR firm persuaded Koop to issue a statement proclaiming that apples were safe. "After the initial furor died down, Whelan was in the forefront of a second wave of coverage in which scientists, federal officials and others said the data on Alar were inconclusive and that the whole controversy had been overblown," recalls Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post.
The following year, after Koop's resignation as Surgeon General, he and Whelan teamed up again, this time to undermine Diet for a Poisoned Planet, a book by David Steinman that warns about pesticides and chemical residues in foods. The PR firm that organized the campaign against Steinman was Ketchum Communications, whose vice-president, Lorraine Thelian, sits on the ACSH board.
Ketchum's client, the California Raisin Advisory Board, was unhappy with Steinman's assertion that raisins contained a large number of pesticide residues. Prior to the book's publication, Ketchum launched what it called an "intelligence/information gathering" operation, in hopes of obtaining a copy of the book manuscript as well as a schedule of Steinman's book promotional tour appearances. Through Whelan, the PR campaign against Steinman even reached into the White House and other arms of the U.S. government.
On July 12, 1990--still prior to actual publication of the book--Whelan sent a letter to then-White House chief of staff John Sununu characterizing Steinman as one of "those who specialize in terrifying consumers about technology" who was "threatening the U.S. standard of living and, indeed, may pose a future threat to national security." Sununu obligingly launched an "investigation," and several employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture were pressed into service in the campaign against the book.
Whelan also contacted Koop to join the attack against Steinman. Koop issued a statement calling the book "trash," which was mailed nationwide. At about the same time, ACSH and Koop joined forces in a fight against a California referendum (nicknamed the "Big Green Initiative") aimed at banning the use of carcinogenic pesticides.
"Absolutely not," retorted Koop spokesperson Anne Michel when asked if he had received money in exchange for his statements defending pesticides. His public statements, she insisted, have been "written on his own accord."
Michel admits that Dr. Koop has cooperated with the PR industry in defending pesticides, as well as genetically-engineered recombinant bovine growth hormone, but says he "has received absolutely no compensation for these projects. As Surgeon General, he was forbidden to do so. Now, as a private citizen, he undertakes these actions with no compensation, in order to maintain his credibility and to promote public health."
Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop participates in a promotional event organized by the Manning, Selvage & Lee PR firm on behalf of Pharmacia & Upjohn. The "Take Time to Talk" campaign encourages people to report "sensitive health problems" such as incontinence to their doctors. (Pharmacia & Upjohn manufactures Detrol, a medicine for people with overactive bladders.)