The Secret History of the War on Cancer

Article excerpt

Book of the Month



Basic Books


Some books make you proud to be human. This is not one of them. Nor is it a book to read all at once, especially not at bedtime, lest suicide begin to appear downright comforting. One by one, with surgical precision, Devra Davis dissects and shreds every illusion ever cherished about the altruism of medicine or the integrity of science.

With that caveat, The secret History of the War on Cancer is a brilliant, longoverdue exposé of one of the longestrunning confidence tricks in history. The 40year-old war on cancer is as much a scam as the current war on terrorism, and just as profitable. And the trouble with profitable wars is that those who profit from them have a strong vested interest in perpetuating them. Davis tracks how the accumulation and protection of profit have controlled the war on cancer from the start.

Well before the dawn of the 20th century, the link between particular occupations and certain cancers was recognized by the medical profession; and by the 1930s, tobacco, radiation, benzene, hormones and other products were known to cause cancer. Research establishing such causes was actively suppressed after World War II, when U.S. industry adapted wartime production to domestic markets. At that point, the rapid growth of radio, television and movies expanded the reach of advertising to new, unprecedented realms, placing an entire nation in thrall to snake oil salesmen.

Here's how it worked, and continues to work today:

A product or process (for example, tobacco or X-rays) is released on the market with little or no testing of its safety.

The product is then promoted relentlessly until the entire population believes they can't do without it (for example, DDT, aspartame, cellphones).

Eventually, its effects become apparent and studies suggest that it causes cancer or birth defects; but by this time the profits are too huge and the public too addicted to accept reality. Not only is the industry that makes the product threatened by any hint of harm, but so too are all the media and the public relations and advertising industries that promote it.

The next thing you know, a vast, powerful corporate campaign arises to discredit, suppress, cover up and belittle the evidence of harm and prevent any government regulation of the product. …