Founded in 1971 by Ralph Nader, Public Citizen (PC) is a “national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization” that claims to represent the interests of American consumers by fighting “for openness and democratic accountability in government; for the right of consumers to seek redress in the courts; for clean, safe and sustainable energy sources; for social and economic justice in trade policies; for strong health, safety and environmental protections; and for safe, effective and affordable prescription drugs and health care.” The means by which PC generally believes these goals can be achieved is increased government intervention and litigation against corporations — a practice founded on the premise that American corporations, like the capitalist system of which they are a part, are inherently inclined toward corruption.
Public Citizen, whose annual revenues amount to approximately $12 million, is composed of two distinct entities: Public Citizen, Inc., a 501(c)4 lobby group, and the Public Citizen Foundation, a 501(c)3 public charity. The purpose of the latter, which was established in 1982, is to support the “research and educational work of Public Citizen, Inc.” Ralph Nader officially left the organization in 1980 but remains closely connected to it as a supporter and adviser. PC’s day-to-day operations are now headed by Nader’s longtime colleague Joan Claybrook, who has been Public Citizen’s President since 1982.
PC’s major campaigns include the following:
(a) Auto Safety: This is the area where Public Citizen first established its reputation as a consumer-advocacy organization, focusing on such issues as fuel efficiency, rollover crashes, air bags, child safety, and defects and recall. In each of these categories, PC generally seeks to impose ever-more stringent regulations on car and truck manufacturers — sometimes even in the face of evidence suggesting that those constraints are counterproductive to the professed goal of consumer protection. Consider PC’s advocacy, beginning in the 1970s, of higher Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards — ostensibly to conserve fuel and diminish the purported effects of global warming. To meet these standards, manufacturers were required to reduce the size and weight of the vehicles they produced, thereby making them less safe in the event of collisions. According to a 2001 report by the National Academy of Sciences, CAFE requirements contribute to somewhere between 1,300 to 2,600 vehicle deaths each year. Nader and Claybrook were well aware of this reality many years earlier; in testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee in 1977, Claybrook said, “There are going to be tradeoffs.”
(b) Congress Watch: This program focuses on campaign finance reform, government ethics, and election reform.
(c) Critical Mass Energy Program: This campaign “safeguards consumers from the impacts of electricity deregulation, educates the public on the dangers of nuclear power while encouraging responsible nuclear waste management, and fights against environmental degradation by promoting clean energy alternatives.”
(d) Health Research Group: Public Citizen has established the website www.worstpills.org, a searchable, online drug database that provides information about hundreds of prescription drugs and warns of more than 180 that are “unsafe or ineffective.” PC also publishes a Worst Pills, Best Pills newsletter, and sends e-alerts to subscribers about the dangers associated with various medicines, foods, and occupations. In addition, PC actively lobbies for nationalized health care in the United States.
(e) Litigation Group: Litigating at all levels of the federal and state judiciaries, this division of Public Citizen “specializes in cases involving health and safety regulation, consumer rights, access to the courts, open government, and the First Amendment, including Internet free speech.” The Litigation Group’s Consumer Justice Project deals with “individual and class action cases that offer a chance to establish important precedents on behalf of consumers.” The Director of the PC Litigation Group is David Vladeck, an Advisory Board member of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which was also founded by Ralph Nader.
Over the years, PC’s legislative efforts have helped bring about the passage of dozens of federal laws designed to protect Americans from the allegedly inherent dangers of the free market in the realms of environmental protection, food safety, airline safety, drug safety, health care, auto safety, and fuel efficiency. Among these are the following:
1972: PC played a key role in the creation of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
1976: A four-year PC campaign culminated in a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ban of red dye number two.
1977: PC sought to persuade President Jimmy Carter to halt the construction of the Clinch River breeder reactor.
1979: A Public Citizen petition led to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ban on the pesticide DBCP.
1982: The arthritis drug Oraflex was withdrawn from the market after PC alleged that it had caused many deaths and injuries. Another PC campaign led to the banning of the purportedly carcinogenic urea formaldehyde in home insulation.
1985: PC revealed the locations of more than 250 work sites nationwide where workers were allegedly exposed to dangerous chemicals.
1989: PC activism helped persuade California voters to shut down the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant. PC also obtained a court order forcing the FDA to require labels warning women that high-absorbency tampons are more likely to cause toxic shock syndrome.
1992: PC won a court order mandating that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) impose a standard to protect workers from cadmium, allegedly linked to lung cancer and kidney damage.
More recently, PC has launched BetterSUV.org, a website that condemns sport utility vehicles as unnecessarily dangerous and fuel-inefficient; the Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program, which opposes food irradiation, water privatization, nuclear power, and energy deregulation; and Global Trade Watch, an anti-globalization, anti-World Trade Organization (WTO) outfit that blames America for doing too little to “fight sweatshops, make life-saving drugs available, and protect endangered species.” In 1999 PC helped organize the massive anti-WTO protests in Seattle, where many of the demonstrators erupted into violent riots. PC similarly opposes the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Central American Free Trade Agreement.In January 2007, a Public Citizen lawsuit resulted in a Boston jury awarding $400,000 in compensatory and punitive damages to a passenger who had been removed from an American Airlines flight in what PC called “a case that amounted to racial profiling.”
Public Citizen’s Litigation Group and its Health Research Group have collaborated effectively in joint campaigns against the pharmaceutical industry, which PC considers to be rife with corruption and greedy profiteers. Convinced that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must be restrained from its alleged predilection to hurriedly grant federal approval for potentially harmful new medicines (a process that currently takes an average of 12 to 15 years), PC seeks to impose ever more onerous review standards on the FDA.
For example, the Capital Research Center reports that in March 2002 Public Citizen filed a petition with the FDA demanding that it withdraw the anti-obesity drug Meridia from the market, claiming that not only was it ineffective, but that it had also been responsible for 29 deaths and 357 “serious adverse reactions” — most notably increased blood pressure and heart rates — among users. FDA medical officer Dr. Eric Colman defended the Agency’s approval of Meridia, noting that its warning label clearly alerted patients to the small risks involved. Confident that the drug’s benefits far outweigh its potential downside, physicians overwhelmingly agree with Colman and endorse Meridia, which is currently used by more than 8 million people in 70 nations. The global mortality rate for its users is about 2 per 100,000 patient-treatment years — a tiny fraction of the mortality rate for obese patients as a whole, which is 390 per 100,000 patient-treatment years.
In 2001 Public Citizen sought to ban the drug Lotronex, which had been introduced to the market in February 2000 for the treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a chronic disorder that afflicts 30 to 40 million Americans. PC noted that Lotronex had been implicated in numerous cases of ischemic colitis, a potentially fatal condition. After Public Citizen petitioned the FDA, the manufacturer, GlaxoSmithKline, voluntarily withdrew the drug from the market. But in June 2002, the FDA determined that Lotronex’s benefits (like those of Meridia) far outweighed its potential dangers, and thus authorized its return.
In August 2001, PC petitioned the federal government to force pharmaceutical companies to place ominous warning labels on statins, the cholesterol-lowering drugs known most popularly by the brand names Zocor (produced by Merck) and Lipitor (produced by Pfizer) — claiming that they were associated with a muscle-destroying side effect called rhabdomyolysis that had killed an estimated 81 people since the first statin was introduced in 1987. But Dr. John Jenkins, an FDA drug review official, pointed out that PC’s report was inaccurate; that it had included numerous duplicate cases as well as patients who had died of other causes, and that the actual number of rhabdomyolysis-related deaths was not 81, but 18. Moreover, notwithstanding the possibility that a few users might experience negative side effects, the National Institute of Health recommended in 2001 that doctors encourage more Americans to use statins to lower their cholesterol levels.
One of Public Citizen’s consistently recurring themes is its allegation that the pharmaceutical industry charges far too much money for the drugs it produces. PC disputes the industry’s contention that the average Research and Development (R&D) costs for bringing a new drug to the market are about $500 million. In July 2001, the organization issued a report titled “Rx R&D Myths: The Case Against the Drug Industry’s R&D Scare Card,” which placed the figure at only $110 million. In a 2001 interview on National Public Radio, Frank Clemente, Director of PC’s Congress Watch, called the $500 million figure “highly misleading if not outright fraud.”
But the claims of Clemente and Public Citizen have been refuted by numerous sources, including: (a) the business management and accounting firm Ernst & Young, which accused PC of using selective evidence to bolster its claims and concluded that R&D costs are at least $500 million per drug; (b) a Lehman Healthcare study, which estimated R&D spending to be over $600 million per drug; (c) the Boston Consulting Group, whose estimates range from $590 million to $880 million; and (d) economist Joseph DiMasi of the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development, whose November 2001 study determined R&D costs to be $802 million per drug.
Though Public Citizen claims to be officially “nonpartisan,” its political criticisms are aimed disproportionately at Republicans. In 2003, for instance, PC launched the website Whitehouseforsale.org, which accuses President Bush of accomplishing “his mission of destroying the presidential public financing system.” Public Citizen has also initiated BushSecrecy.org, which blames the Bush administration for post-9/11 civil liberties violations, lax regulation of allegedly carcinogenic products, cover-ups of auto-safety violations, and inadequate food-inspection standards.
Public Citizen was a signatory to an April 2001 petition opposing further development of nuclear technologies. Fellow signers included numerous organizations “active in environment, development, disarmament and human rights issues.” Among these were: Abolition 2000, Citizen Action, Earth Day Network, Food Not Bombs, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Institute for Policy Studies, Pax Christi, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Sierra Club, Women’s Action for New Directions, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
Public Citizen receives funding from the Arca Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Compton Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Energy Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Foundation for Deep Ecology, the Jenifer Altman Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Minneapolis Foundation, the Moriah Fund, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Open Society Institute, the Public Welfare Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, and the Surdna Foundation.
PC is a member organization of the Abolition 2000 anti-war coalition.