Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Monday, June 20, 2005

Professor sued over anti-aging comments

This type of suit threatens the right of individuals to expose quackery and fraud:

Professor sued over anti-aging comments
Academic freedom at issue in lawsuit

By Jeremy Manier
Tribune staff reporter
Published June 19, 2005

Over the years that S. Jay Olshansky has blasted the Chicago-based American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine as a peddler of baseless ideas about how to reverse the aging process, he says he always saw their dust-up as a scientific dispute like many others.

But in an unusual $120 million lawsuit now winding through Cook County Circuit Court, leaders of the anti-aging group contend the University of Illinois at Chicago professor and a colleague were aiming at much more--a "ruthless campaign" and conspiracy to discredit their work and destroy their careers.

The defamation case is an almost unheard-of attempt to punish academics for comments made in their professional capacity, said experts on libel law and academic freedom. Although UIC is not a defendant in the suit, officials there said they are so concerned about protecting scholarly speech that the school is picking up Olshansky's legal bills.

"It's the job of a university professor to search for the truth and to speak it," said UIC spokesman Bill Burton. "In fact, that's the purpose of a research university. Professor Olshansky was doing his job, and the university is defending its purpose."

The plaintiffs, osteopathic physicians Ronald Klatz and Robert Goldman, say the 1st Amendment's free speech protections do not cover the actions of Olshansky and co-defendant Dr. Thomas Perls of Boston University. Klatz and Goldman blame the defendants' criticism for a series of recent professional setbacks, including cancellation of an anti-aging conference to have been held this month in Singapore, and termination of a contract to develop anti-aging products that could have been worth $20 million.

Many scientists have targeted the anti-aging group for spreading what they say are unfounded claims that products such as human growth hormone can "de-age" patients. In one of his books, Klatz called growth hormone "the first medically proven age-reversal therapy." Researchers such as Olshansky, a biological demographer, say those claims are not supported by clinical studies.

"In the world of science, disagreements are desirable because they advance the field," Olshansky said. "In the world of anti-aging medicine, perhaps these notions are less desirable. You don't see opposing viewpoints presented at their meetings."

Klatz and Goldman declined to comment for this article. Their attorney, Sigmund Wissner-Gross, argues in their suit that Olshansky and his colleagues crossed the line in March 2004 by giving a mock "Silver Fleece" award to products developed by Klatz and Goldman. The line of dietary supplements and skincare products got the award for making "the most ridiculous, outrageous, scientifically unsupported or exaggerated assertions about intervening in aging or age-related diseases," Olshansky said in a UIC press release at the time.

Olshansky made his statements "outside the classroom and far removed from any claimed `professional' conduct," Wissner-Gross wrote in an e-mail reply to questions.

"No one is immune from making defamatory statements."

Just as reporters often are sued for libel, academics can be held accountable for their comments, but the latter is far less common, experts said.

"I can't think of a situation where a faculty member has been sued for what they're writing," said Jonathan Knight, director of the program on academic freedom and tenure at the American Association of University Professors.

Beyond the defamation claim, the suit contends that Olshansky went out of his way to derail a lucrative contract Klatz and Goldman had with Market America Inc., which makes the products that received the Silver Fleece award. They say Olshansky made threatening and defamatory statements to a Market America executive at an anti-aging conference in December 2003, including that the anti-aging products were "virtually useless." The company later pulled out of its contract with Klatz and Goldman.

Olshansky said he spoke with a Market America representative in the exhibitors' area of the Las Vegas meeting, one of many that he has attended in his routine monitoring of anti-aging claims.

"It was a very friendly conversation," Olshansky recalled. "I asked him, have these products been evaluated for safety and efficacy? He said no. I said it probably would be a good idea."

Although the complaint Klatz and Goldman filed contends the products had been rigorously tested, their attorneys declined to provide documentation for that contention, citing the pending case.

Judges tend to set a high bar for bringing defamation cases to trial because of the risk of discouraging free speech, said Sandra Baron, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center in New York.

"Suits are sometimes a way for individuals or organizations to chill their critics, to force their critics to tone down the language they use if not hold back altogether," Baron said.

That doesn't seem likely for Olshansky, who spoke freely about the disputes mentioned in the suit.

"I will not back down," he said. "It's not like this suit is going to influence us."

Although Klatz and Goldman accuse Olshansky of harboring a long-term vendetta against them, he said he actually agrees with some of their causes, such as improving health through diet and exercise.