Monday, April 7, 2014

Chili's Backs out of Promotion with Anti-Vax Group

Last week it came out that Chili's was planning a charitable giveaway, today, to a group that supports the link between autism and vaccines. I wrote an op-ed about this and had it ready to roll out with CNN Opinion (pending some global news story cropping up) when Chili's announced that they were changing their minds. I'm very pleased about this and thought I'd post the now-irrelevant op-ed below.

What's interesting to me is that Chili's attempted to weather the storm for a day or two. They posted on Facebook a "we're not taking sides, just helping families" message (linked to in the op-ed) and waited 48 hrs, then pulled the event.

While the hook is gone, there are still a few important points in the op-ed worth making, I hope - specifically on the mentality of the conspiracy theorist and the danger of a group that seems respectable but isn't.

Here's the full piece.


“Would You Like Measles With That?” (1073 words)

Chili’s restaurant chain has promised to donate 10% of its sales on April 7 to the National Autism Association (NAA) in honor of Autism Awareness Month.  While laudable, Chili’s should reconsider and find another charity. The NAA has strong links to vaccine “truthers” within the autism community and beyond.  In fact, their veneer of respectability makes them especially dangerous.

Many preventable diseases have re-emerged in the last few years.  We almost beat measles in the early part of the last decade, but it’s back.  There are forty-nine cases in California already this year (up from four at the same time last year) and twenty-five in New York CityThe CDC reports that 2013 was the second worst year for measles since 2000 (when it was “eliminated,”) with 189 cases, but signs point to this year topping that unfortunate achievement.  Meanwhile, mumps is spreading on the Ohio State University Campus

It’s hard to prove connections between any one outbreak and the rise of anti-vaccination movements, but the increasing incidence of parents refusing to vaccinate their children cannot be helping. It’s a curious movement that draws support from both the left and the right.  Left-wing groups tend to couch their resistance to vaccines as an environmental issue, embracing “natural” foods and defenses over pharmacological ones. On the right, religious fundamentalists and anti-science skeptics unite to offer reasons to avoid vaccines, or at least insist on parental choice even if a child might endanger others.

Against this backdrop of the return of preventable diseases, we arrive at April, also known as Autism Awareness Month, and the multiple overlapping campaigns to raise awareness, raise money, and argue for particular approaches to and definitions of autism.  Unfortunately, thanks to fraudulent science, celebrity endorsers, and snake-oil sellers profiteering off parental fear, autism has become irrevocably linked to the anti-vaccination movement.  There are, however, no links between autism and vaccines.

This brings us back to the National Autism Association and Chili’s. Here’s what the NAA says about the causes of autism:

Based on parent reports – including parents representing the National Autism Association – sharp regression occurred in their children directly following immunizations.  While many parents can provide detailed accounts of regression in their children following vaccination, other parents have reported autism in their unvaccinated children. More sparsely, parents report swift regression following an illness, use of antibiotics, and random chemical exposure – such as carpet cleaning. Though published mainstream science fails to acknowledge a causal link to any of these specific exposures, it’s important that parental accounts be carefully considered.

Notice the subtleties here. Parental reports must be considered. Mainstream science doesn’t agree, but for conspiracy-minded individuals “mainstream” is a word that directly codes  as untrustworthy.  Peer-review, in the mind of the believer, is a process that filters the truth out of published science. Any hint of vaccination dangers gets lauded as confirmation; any dismissal of a link between vaccines (or other environmental factors) and autism is rejected as false.  

This speaks directly to the nature of the believer in conspiracies.  Ever since writing about Jenny McCarthy and the anti-vaccination movement for CNN Opinion and on my blog, I receive emails with long citations from “non-mainstream” science that supports the fears of anti-vaccination advocates.  I genuinely don’t know how to argue with such emails. Even a recent study  that neurological changes associated with autism start in the womb doesn’t seem to help.

The consequences of these positions extend beyond the very serious public health concerns induced by the rise of measles, mumps, whooping cough, and other preventable diseases.  Some parents, convinced of the environmental nature of autism, have sought to purge their children of perceived autism-causing toxins. As chronicled by science-blogger Orac, parents have not only embraced anti-inflammation diets, but pursued expensive stem-cell treatments, and even forced their children to take special bleach-based drinks and enemas.

The NAA is not the most notorious anti-vaccination group around, but they trend that way.  They write, “If you are a parent seeking detailed information on vaccine safety, we recommend visiting the National Vaccine Information Center website.”  The NVIC looks like an official agency, but exists in order to persuade parents not to vaccinate and to lobby against vaccination efforts. Linking to them at the bottom of a page on “cause of autism” is not casual or “teaching the controversy,” but a flag announcing one’s allegiance.  The NAA page on “preventing autism” goes directly to, which lists limiting vaccinations (and other questionable approaches) among its recommendations. Moreover, the NAA recommends Jenny McCarthy’s work (and less well known but equally problematic texts), and is a “friend” to Age of Autism.  Age of Autism is among the most notorious anti-vaccination organizations around.

In response to people raising the vaccine question, Chili’s wrote on their Facebook page:

At Chili’s Grill & Bar, we’re about making every guest feel special and pride ourselves in giving back to our communities. When choosing a charitable partner for our Give Back Events, both locally and nationally, we are committed to supporting organizations dedicated to helping children and their families.
The intent of our 4/7 National Give Back Event is not to express a view on this matter, but rather to support the families affected by autism. Our choice to partner with the National Autism Association was based on the percentage of donations that would go directly to providing financial assistance to families and supporting programs that aid the development and safety of children with autism. We sincerely appreciate all of the feedback we've heard on this topic.

Chili’s concern with the percentage going directly to families sounds laudable.  Autism Speaks, probably the best-known organization focused on autism, donates only 3% of its funds to families (and is widely criticized for other reasons).  NAA’s programs, however, do not outweigh the damage they do as a gateway to vaccine trutherism.

This is what I’ve learned from arguing with the forces marshaling against vaccinations:  Once someone has embraced a conspiracy theory, it’s hard to bring them back. The key is to stop the conspiracy theory from spreading in the first place.

It’s probably too late for Chili’s to reconsider, but they should. The money they raise may go to families, but there are other organizations dedicated to helping families and people with autism. Chili’s is making the NAA seem more respectable and thus helping the vaccine-autism link seem less outlandish.  That doesn’t actually help the families Chili’s wants to support and it endangers public health.


These are the key points: An organization with a veneer of respectability is especially dangerous in some ways. Once someone is inside a conspiracy, there's little going back.

I think this would have been a good essay. Like any writer, I'm disappointed I didn't get to run a piece in a major publication, but I'm more than satisfied to take Chili's decision as a sign that public sentiment remains firmly on the side of science in this one. We have to keep it that way.