Confidence Game: Burson-Marsteller's PR Plan for Silicone Breast Implants >>
The PR story begins in 1985, when Burson-Marsteller warned Dow Corning of "the potential for a corporate media crisis" after a federal jury in San Francisco ordered the company to pay $1.7 million to Maria Stern in Carson City, Nevada for what the court judged were "defectively designed and manufactured" breast implants. The jury judged Dow Corning guilty of fraud, based on internal corporate memos and studies showing that the company had failed to inform the public of health risks related to implants.
Although the Stern case received slight media coverage, Burson-Marsteller wrote an analysis titled "Silicone Medical Implants as a Public Issue," in which the PR firm predicted that "the combination of human suffering, large financial awards, big business and big medicine . . . represent a potentially volatile media situation for the company."
From Cover-up to Blow-up
After unsuccessful attempts to overturn the Stern verdict, Dow's lawyers negotiated a settlement in which the company agreed to pay the judgment in exchange for a "protective order" blocking public access to embarrassing internal documents and testimony which had emerged during the trial. In a series of subsequent cases filed by other plaintiffs, Dow settled out of court, again obtaining secrecy orders to keep damaging information from reaching the public.
In the late '80s, however, Dr. Sydney Wolfe, the head of Ralph Nader's Public Citizen Health Research Group, became an outspoken critic of implants. Women's groups also began pressuring the FDA to ban silicone implants.
In December 1990, the story hit big on Connie Chung's Face to Face on CBS-TV, which featured interviews with a series of seriously ill women who blamed implants for their conditions. The show touched off a frenzy among women with implants, and the FDA came under additional public pressure. In March 1991, a New York City court awarded $4.5 million to a woman who claimed that implants had caused her cancer.
Juries judged Dow Corning guilty of fraud, based on internal corporate memos documents showing that the company failed to inform the public of health risks related to implants.
As the crisis grew, so did the company's PR campaign. In 1990, Burson-Marsteller billed a paltry $6,000 in PR fees to Dow Corning, but "From May 1991 through February 1992 our billings have been $3,776,000, with gross income of $1,384,000," stated Burson-Marsteller Senior Vice President Johnna Matthews, in a March 10, 1992 letter marked "confidential" to Larry Snodden, President of B-M/Europe.
According to Matthews, Dow's PR crisis exploded when yet another implant recipient, Marianne Hopkins, sued the company and the "jury reached a verdict in December 1991. They found Dow Corning guilty of fraud, oppression and malice with damages of $7.4 million. Damning memos on issues of quality control and safety, which had been under protective orders, reached the public and we've been playing catch-up ever since. . . . Our job has become damage control of language that compares breast implants to the 'Pinto gas tank' and a multitude of other comments" in memos which are "almost impossible to defend in court and certainly in the 'court of public opinion.' "
By 1992, the FDA had imposed a ban on further breast implants, and implant manufacturers faced lawsuits worth billions of dollars. Dow began to fear for its very survival, as breast implants threatened to become a wedge opening the company to even wider scrutiny. "There are other issues on the horizon for them," Matthews wrote. "All silicones may be attacked, their other medical devices like joints are under attack and they have some environmental issues too."
In a separate strategy document, Burson-Marsteller advised, "We must aggressively fight a world in which 'silicone-free' becomes a labeling boast."
Mobilizing the Masses
As the FDA moved toward hearings on the implant controversy, Dow and the plastic surgeons launched a fierce PR counterattack. Burson-Marsteller and its subsidiary, Gold & Liebengood, led the charge for Dow, while the plastic surgeons retained the PR firms of Kent & O'Connor, along with Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly, another B-M subsidiary.
One of Dow's internal memos from that period has been cited by critics of the company as evidence that the company was engaged in deliberate deception. Plaintiffs and their attorneys have emphasized a sentence from the memo in which Dow CEO Dan Hayes states, "The issue of cover-up is going well from a long-term perspective."
Less attention, however, has been given to the remainder of the Hayes memo, in which he describes clearly the company's PR strategy. "The number one issue in my mind is the establishment of networks," Hayes states. "This is the largest single issue on our platter because it affects not only the next 2--3 years of profitability . . . but also ultimately has a big impact on the long-term ethics and believability issues. . . . I have started to initiate surgeon contact . . . to organize the plastic surgery community. . . . The place we have the biggest hole still missing . . . is in this whole arena of getting the patient grassroots movement going."
"These women (including celebrities) will be trained and
testimony will be written for them
to deliver before Congressional committees."
--internal Burson-Marsteller PR document
"Grassroots" has become a corporate buzzword for a PR strategy which uses corporate wealth to subsidize orchestrated mass campaigns that put seemingly independent citizens on the front lines as activists for corporate causes. Phillip Morris, for example, has paid Burson-Marsteller tens of millions of dollars to organize smokers into the National Smokers' Alliance, which effectively lobbies for the company in the name of "smokers' rights."
Johnna Matthews described B-M's grassroots strategy for Dow in a confidential letter on September 9, 1991 addressed to B-M subsidiary Gold & Liebengood. "I was not going to put this into writing, but wanted you both to be up to speed--and there's too much information for you to have to listen to it all verbally," Matthews wrote. "With the FDA's new penchant for walking into ad agencies and demanding to look at documents, I hope you'll give this a toss once you've read it."
According to Matthews, "No one really knows why the women who have problems have them. . . . It may be that there are women with an allergic reaction to the silicone gel," although she termed this "unlikely."
Worried that the FDA was considering a ban on silicone breast implants, Matthews outlined a strategy for "getting women angry about having the right to make their own decision about implants taken away from them. . . . We also want to place regional, and if possible, national media stories on the need for keeping this option open to women."
Another internal document describes Burson-Marsteller's grassroots organizing tactics in more detail: "Utilize a well-known celebrity who has breast implants for reconstructive purposes to speak out on the benefits of them. Utilize spokespeople drawn from women's cancer support groups in major markets to defend implants by writing letters to the editor, participating in media interviews, and communicating positive messages to women's groups in their regions."
Burson-Marsteller turned to the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons for help in identifying patients who could be recruited as spokespeople. After regional spokespersons had been enrolled around the country, "we can announce the celebrity chairperson as head of the national women's cancer support organization (name to be determined). . . . [Dow Corning] makes corporate grant to this organization. . . . Agency to provide day-to-day media support for the group. . . . These women (including celebrities) will be trained and testimony will be written for them to deliver before Congressional committees."
In a preliminary budget, B-M suggested that Dow should be prepared to pay $891,000 to get the grassroots program up and running, including a $300,000 "participation fee" to its celebrity spokesperson.
In practice, it appears that Dow was never able to find an adequate celebrity willing to fill the desired role. Only two celebrities have gone public talking about their experiences with implants--talk show host Jennie Jones and former "Waltons" actress Mary McDonough, both of whom have spoken out against health problems which they believe were caused by their implants.
B-M's focus groups showed that it could get the most favorable press coverage by highlighting cases of women with breast cancer who have had mastectomies and used implants for the purpose of breast reconstruction. "While these are only 15-25% of implant patients--the rest are augmentation--they engender more sympathy," Matthews wrote.
For similar reasons, Burson-Marsteller advised that cancer specialists should be recruited as "spokesdoctors" to defend the company in the top 15 media markets in the United States, because "an oncologist obviously has more credibility than a plastic surgeon."
As Dow Corning geared up for hearings on implant safety scheduled for November 14, 1991, Burson-Marsteller worked to organize a massive "Washington fly-in." B-M staffer Cindee Castronovo was put in charge of bringing up to 1,000 women to Washington to rally in favor of implants, with Dow Corning footing the bills for their travel and lodging, plus several days of rehearsals and training prior to the actual testimony.
Participants in the fly-in included a writer named Karen Berger and breast cancer support groups Y-ME, the Susan B. Komen Foundation, and the National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations (NABCO). Y-ME was given the assignment to generate 175,000 letters to Congress.
Berger, a former schoolteacher, was neither a cancer survivor nor an implant recipient. Her authority as an expert on implants was based on her authorship of A Woman's Decision: Breast Care, Treatment and Reconstruction. Co-authored with plastic surgeon John Bostwick III, the book encourages women to seek reconstructive surgery following mastectomies. Burson-Marsteller pitched her to the press as the author of "survey work" which "shows that the majority of breast cancer patients who have been reconstructed find implants very valuable."
Berger's name appears repeatedly on internal Burson-Marsteller documents, which describe her as a "primary recruiter" for the Washington fly-in. In a USA Today profile, however, Berger is described as an "independent medical publisher" who "says she has no connection with any organization."
"The suggestion that women should martyr themselves . . . by remaining breastless is a throwback to the Middle Ages," Berger argued in one news release. She even went so far as to claim that banning implants would lead to an increase in cancer deaths among women. Without the implant option, she argued, women would avoid seeking diagnosis and treatment of their cancers.
One Hand Washes Another
Burson-Marsteller documents suggest that financial incentives helped Dow grease the skids with cancer support groups such as Y-ME and the Susan B. Komen Foundation. The Komen Foundation, for example, sponsors running marathons in several cities to fundraise and promote awareness of the need for breast cancer checkups. In an October 1991 strategy note, Burson-Marsteller noted that the foundation "wants Dow Corning to sponsor upcoming race in Atlanta."
B-M also offered its assistance on what it called an "I scratch your back" basis to the breast cancer coalition "to pump dollars for [breast cancer] research."
Some breast cancer survivors, such as Darcy Sixt, publicly acknowledged that they had become paid spokespersons for Dow Corning. Others either worked for free or made no mention of who paid them.
Although the hundreds of women who rallied during the Washington fly-in had their expenses paid, Burson-Marsteller planned to avoid payments to people who would be testifying before the FDA. It made a special exception to this rule in one case--Timmie Jean Lindsey, who in 1962 became the first woman to receive a set of breast implants. "We will be paying for Timmie Jean Lindsey to testify--based on the fact that she could not take on the financial responsibility," states a B-M document.
In fact, Lindsey's full story could strengthen the argument of women who say implants cause connective-tissue disorders. In the 1970s, she suffered joint pain, rashes, dry mouth, dry eyes, and chronic fatigue. More recently, she underwent surgery to replace a knee joint, a problem she attributes to age but which might be interpreted as a symptom of silicone-induced arthritis. Her daughter and a sister-in-law, both of whom she encouraged to receive implants, have joined the class action lawsuit that plaintiffs have filed against implant manufacturers, with her daughter alleging that the implants gave her lupus.
The plastic surgeons' efforts to recruit spokespersons backfired completely in the case of Terry Davis of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. "My doctor told me to lobby the FDA to keep implants," she told the FDA panel. Instead, she attended so she could describe the complications she had suffered with her implants following a double mastectomy four years previously.
In the March 1992 letter from B-M's Johnna Matthews to co-worker Larry Snodden, she credited Burson-Marsteller's grassroots strategy with "turning around the media coverage on the issue from strongly negative, to almost equal amounts of balanced and positive articles versus negative. It culminated briefly in November's FDA Advisory Panel Hearings where by bringing in a tremendous number of women to testify, we also helped turn those hearings around. The result was that the panel recommended to FDA Commissioner David Kessler that the implants remain on the market--a major victory."
Victory notwithstanding, Dow Corning was already outlining plans to withdraw from the breast implant market, which had become both controversial and unprofitable. In a strategy document dated December 19, 1991, Burson-Marsteller warned that "the company's motives are going to be questioned. You can't say in November, 'We are very concerned about the patients, and will do anything the FDA requires of us to keep the product widely available,' and then say in January, 'We are withdrawing from the marketplace.' "
From a PR perspective, B-M advised Dow that it could "minimize negative comments" by timing its withdrawal to coincide with an "adverse FDA decision" that could serve as "a highly defensible public reason for withdrawing from the business."
The anticipated "adverse FDA decision" came with two rulings in early 1992. Although Kessler made an exemption so that breast cancer patients could continue to receive silicone implants despite the ban, Dow's grassroots network continues to accuse the FDA of limiting options for breast reconstruction.
As recently as August 1995, Y-ME Executive Director Sharon Green testified before Congress that "The implant debate is out of control--and, as a result, we all lose." Another Y-ME activist, Rosemary Locke, described silicone implants as "a benefit to women not only in the breast cancer community, but to some degree to all women."
In order to rehabilitate its battered image, Dow Corning reshuffled management in 1992, bringing in Keith McKennon as its new chairman. McKennon's background included crisis management for Dow Chemical during the parent company's own prior scandals. The Washington Post noted that McKennon had handled "public relations fights over dioxin and Agent Orange. . . . This background is very pertinent to a meaningful resolution of the mammary issue."
Dow also hired Griffin Bell, former U.S. Attorney General under President Carter, to perform an "independent review" of the company. Since leaving public office, Bell has performed similar high-profile services for clients including Exxon in the wake of the Valdez oil spill; General Motors after the discovery that pickup trucks were exploding in auto collisions; Virginia Military Institute in its effort to bar women students; and A.H. Robins during its Dalkon Shield controversy.
"What does the company need from Griffin Bell?" asked one Burson-Marsteller document. "Not a 'clean bill of health'--which would be a disaster." B-M even suggested toughening the Bell review by adding a "representative of a responsible public interest group" or a "major medical association. If the findings are a bit rougher than they might otherwise have been, from a PR perspective, that's not a problem. It gives the company a chance to show credibility, responsiveness, willingness to change."
Bell prepared a report based on his investigation, along with a three-page letter of recommendations for changes in company policy. Dow released the letter with an accompanying statement of the company's intent to comply with these "reforms." The statement claimed that Bell's team had exhaustively reviewed 300,000 pages of corporate information. Citing attorney-client privilege, however, Dow refused to release the documents for public review, or even to release Bell's full report.
Science Under Pressure: Dow-Funded Studies Say 'No Problem!'
by John C. Stauber and Sheldon Rampton
Breast implant makers and plastic surgeons have spent vastly more money on PR, attorneys, and lobbying than the women who are suing them for damages. Thanks to PR, the industry has achieved a remarkable reversal, persuading large sectors of the news media that it is the victim of politics, greed and "junk science."
New York Times reporter Gina Kolata has typified the trend, penning stories such as "Implant Lawsuits Create a Medical Rush to Cash In," which portrays the 400,000 women who have joined a class-action lawsuit against the industry as greedy opportunists goaded on by slick attorneys. Similar stories have appeared on 60 Minutes and PBS-TV's Frontline.
At the heart of this line of defense is a strategy outlined by Burson-Marsteller in 1991 as Dow was preparing to withdraw from the breast implant market. "Research continues regardless of the disposition of the business," advised one memo. In order to achieve the long-term goal of rehabilitating Dow's reputation, B-M argued, the company would have to produce scientific data from seemingly independent, "third party" sources, which it could point to as proof that silicone was safe.
In 1992, B-M warned that the company's "credibility is still low. Of course, company and its employees will play a key role in disseminating message. But . . . core of message must be scientific, third-party support. Research studies already announced will be helpful when done. . . . We must begin by identifying supportive science, scientists, across the spectrum of uses for silicone; training and supporting them to get our message out; . . . using them proactively to brief the trade, general and business media; . . . using them reactively as a 'truth squad' to refute antagonists."
Frontline's February 1996 program on the silicone controversy provided a textbook example of this strategy in action. It built its case around the opinions of Dr. Marcia Angell, editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, which Frontline described as "the most prestigious medical journal in the world." Angell has overseen the publication of the two best-known epidemiological studies to date on breast implants--one by the Mayo Clinic, the other by Harvard researchers and Brigham & Women's Hospital--both of which found "no evidence" that implants cause serious long-term illness.
"What was so startling to me," Angell told Frontline, "was the disconnect between the science . . . and what was happening in the courts and what was happening at the FDA and what was happening in public opinion. The disconnect was amazing."
Over 90,000 women have provided evidence to the FDA of health problems that they attribute to their implants. Angell dismissed these complaints as "coincidental" and argued that "Passion, anecdotes, claims, testimonials will not settle this issue. It can only be settled by science."
"We must begin by identifying supportive science, scientists,
across the spectrum of uses for silicone;
training and supporting them to get our message out."
--Burson-Marsteller's PR plan for Dow Corning
Based largely on Angell's characterizations, Frontline portrayed FDA Commissioner David Kessler as somone who was "horrified" by the results of his 1992 decision to ban cosmetic use of silicone breast implants, and who now believes that science has proven them safe.
In fact, however, Kessler has continued to repeat his concerns. In April 1996, a month after the Frontline piece aired, Kessler joined several other physicians in authoring an article for the Annals of Internal Medicine which found methodological flaws in all 13 of the epidemiological studies which have been performed to date on systemic health problems related to implants.
According to the article, "Some of the problems common to these different studies include (1) sample sizes inadequate to rule out rare outcomes, (2) study methods inappropriate for detecting atypical syndromes, (3) poor choice of comparison group, and (4) inadequate duration of follow-up or information-gathering techniques that may have biased the detection of implants or clinical outcomes."
What Angell and Frontline never mentioned, moreover, were the numerous scientific studies that have found evidence of silicone-related illnesses, and which have been published in medical journals including the Annals of Plastic Surgery, The Journal of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, The American Journal of Clinical Pathology, The British Journal of Plastic Surgery, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, The Journal of the American Medical Association, Arthritis & Rheumatism, and The Archives of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.
Pure Science or Pure Hoopla?
Despite its prestige, moreover, the New England Journal of Medicine is not as pristine and infallible as Frontline would have the public believe. In fact, the journal has lent itself to junk science in the service of PR on several prior occasions.
In 1982, for example, a federation of French artificial-insemination centers used the NEJM to promote a misleading study that raised female fears of infertility by claiming that women who pass the age of 30 stand a nearly 40 percent chance of being infertile. Actually, the true rate of infertility at that age is only 13.6 percent, according to authoritative research by the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics. Not only did the NEJM publish the French study--whose conclusions were eventually abandoned even by its own authors--it added an accompanying editorial, moralizing that women should "reevaluate their goals" and have babies before starting careers.
In another case in 1986, the NEJM published one study and rejected another which reached opposite conclusions about the antibiotic amoxicillin, even though both studies were based on the same data. Scientists involved with the first study had received $1.6 million in grants from the drug manufacturer, while the critic had refused corporate funding. NEJM proclaimed the pro-amoxicillin study the "authorized" version. Five years later, the critical study finally found publication in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and large-scale testing of children showed that those who took amoxicillin actually experienced lower recovery rates than people who took no medicine at all.
"This is not unlike R.J. Reynolds funding a study
that examines people in their thirties,
and finding no increased risk of lung cancer."
--Shanna Swan, epidemiologist at UC-Berkeley
Like the French fertility survey and the amoxicillin study, both of the breast implant studies published by NEJM were heavily funded by partisan sources. Dow Corning and other manufacturers funneled funding into the Mayo Clinic Study through the the Plastic Surgery Educational Foundation (PSEF) of the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons.
The Harvard-Brigham study claims it did not receive direct funding from Dow, but according to plaintiff's attorney Stephen Sheller, the company did provide corporate grants to the hospital totalling at least $7 million during the period that the study was underway. Sheller bases that figure on depositions taken from Peter Schur, a professor at Brigham who supervised one of the major authors of the study.
Schur also admitted in December 1994 that during the course of the Harvard-Brigham study, he was also working for $300 an hour as a consultant and expert witness for law firms defending implant makers. Simultaneously, he was editor of Arthritis & Rheumatism, a medical journal in which he had published an article defending implant safety while rejecting submitted studies that found links between implants and health problems. Schur's associate editor at Arthritis & Rheumatism was Dr. Matthew Liang, also a Brigham & Women's professor who moonlighted as a consultant for the manufacturers' law firms and who worked on the Harvard-Brigham study.
After their multiple roles were disclosed, Liang and Schur resigned from a second Harvard implant study, also funded by Dow Corning, to avoid "the appearance of conflict of interest." Liang has also admitted giving information about the first Harvard study to Dow while the study was in progress, but has refused to provide information that would clarify whether Dow actually had a hand in shaping the study's methodology.
The Madness in the Method
In fact, critics of implants, such as Ben Lilliston of the Cancer Prevention Coalition in Chicago, have found numerous flaws in the method of both studies. "Perhaps the most significant problem with the studies is their time frame," Lilliston says. "Most researchers who have studied women with implants say that it usually takes 10 years or more for symptoms to develop. In the Mayo Clinic study, women had the implants in for a mean of 7.8 years. In the Harvard study the mean was 9.9 years." Since the real boom in implant popularity occurred in the late 1980s, two-thirds of all women with implants have not had them long enough to start showing symptoms yet.
"It's easy to get a negative study; you just look too soon," agrees Shanna Swan, an epidemiologist from the University of California at Berkeley. "This is not unlike R.J. Reynolds funding a study that examines people in their thirties, and finding no increased risk of lung cancer."
In addition, breast implant plaintiffs point out that the Mayo and Harvard-Brigham studies did not look for the "atypical" cluster symptoms that most women report. Instead, they looked for traditional connective-tissue diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Most researchers studying "silicone associated disease" believe that it is a nontraditional disorder with its own set of unique characteristics.
"We're dealing with atypical disorders. Anyone who read the literature going back to the 1970s would have known that you need to look beyond classical diseases," says Dr. Gary Solomon, the associate director of rheumatology at the Hospital for Joint Diseases Orthopaedic Institute in New York City. "It is frankly disturbing that these medical studies did not consider this."
Neither study involved physical examinations
or even interviews with any of the women under study.
Critics also say that the studies do not look at enough women to produce meaningful statistical results. "To detect even a doubling in the baseline rate of scleroderma, you would need to have at least 30,000 women in your study," says Dr. Solomon.
Finally, women who have suffered illnesses fault the studies for relying on questionnaires and old medical charts--where atypical symptoms are less likely to have been noted than firm disease diagnoses--while failing to examine the women themselves. Neither study involved physical examinations or even interviews with any of the women under study.
"Every study we see seems to focus on the attorneys and the epidemiology studies," says implant recipient and activist Janice Ferriell. "Why don't they look at us, and figure out what's going on?"
"I have breast implants. I know," says Mary Feller, another implant litigant from San Rafael, California. "I've suffered all of those undefinable, diffuse symptoms--severe fatigue, night sweats, terrible headaches, stiff shoulders, neck and jaw."
Feller says the medical studies remind her of "the old joke about the drunk looking for his money under the lamppost because that's 'where the light is.' The same thing is happening with implants. The disease is out there in the dark, but the medical community insists on looking under the lamppost, probably because the light is provided by Dow."
A Victim of Delusion?
Susan Schaezler is one of the women whom implant manufacturers are portraying as victims of mass hysteria and opportunistic attorneys. Along with 400,000 other women who have filed suit against the implant makers, she believes that her health is threatened by the implant she received in 1982 as part of reconstructive surgery following breast cancer.
In October 1995, Schaezler learned that her implant had ruptured and underwent surgery to have it taken out. The operating team was forced to cut the implant into pieces in order to remove it, and most of the liquid silicone spilled into her body.
"Some of the capsule and silicone was left adhered to my ribs," Schaezler said. "I felt like I had been hit by a train the day after that surgery. My lab values went out of sight and my symptoms were unbelievable. I could only manage to stand up for five minutes at a time and had horrible headaches, nausea, dizziness, aching sensation all over, and many other problems. My tissue became quickly infected and began destroying itself. Daily, I would see the results of the destruction. I broke out in fire-ant-like lesions, mostly on the implant side. My tongue developed horrible sores and I had a horrible time eating or speaking. I really worried if I would make it to 1996 for awhile. I have had two more surgeries since that time and the destruction was finally stopped, but I have still not recovered."
Beauty and the Breast: How Industry Sold Implants to Women
The technique of silicone injections traveled from Japan to the United States, where it was first adopted by topless dancers. Recognizing the problems with injections, Dow Corning developed implants in 1962 which used silicone envelopes to contain the liquid silicone gel inside. Dow and other implant makers projected that the implants were durable enough to remain intact within women's bodies for a lifetime.
Implants did cause problems, however, the most common of which is known as "capsular contracture." The body tends to treat the implant as a foreign intrusion, walling it off by forming an often-painful capsule of scar tissue that hardens, tightens around the implant, and distorts the shape of the breast. Several studies of the rate of capsular contracture have found that it occurs in over half of the women who receive breast implants.
Implant rupture, which causes silicone gel to spill into the surrounding tissue, is another complication, which increases in frequency as the implants age. Contrary to Dow's projections that implants last a lifetime, one study of implant recipients found that 35.7% of the women had experienced a rupture within the first nine years after implantation. By year 17, the rupture rate had increased to 95.7%. The rupture problem apparently increased after Dow redesigned its implants in the 1970s. The thick gel in early implants produced unnaturally firm breasts, so Dow attempted to come closer to the real thing by using a thinner gel, described by one doctor as having "the consistency of 50-weight motor oil."
Problems with the new implants began to crop up in some of the "damning memos" mentioned by Burson-Marsteller PR executive Johnna Matthews. The gel tended to bleed through the envelopes, even when there was no rupture. In an internal memo, sales executive Tom Salisbury noted that implant samples used in sales pitches to doctors "have a tendency to appear oily after being manipulated." He advised salespeople to "change demonstration samples often" and to clean them before demonstrations by washing them "with soap and water in nearest washroom" and drying with hand towels.
In 1977, another Dow marketing executive wrote a confidential memo stating that a number of doctors had raised concerns about gel bleed. "I assured them, with crossed fingers, that Dow Corning too had an active 'contracture/gel migration' study underway," he wrote. "This apparently satisfied them for the moment, but one of these days, they will be asking us for the results of our studies. . . . It is very likely just a matter of time until the orthopedic community will be aggressively asking similar questions to those we are now hearing from the plastic surgeons."
Outside the medical community, women implant recipients were complaining of unexpected implant complications. A 1976 issue of Ms. Magazine documented serious health concerns, which continued to be ignored by the mainstream media.
"We knew that silicone was no good back in the 1970s," says Harriet Trudell, who worked at the time for Nevada Governor Mike O'Callaghan. "Showgirls and cocktail waitresses in Las Vegas were coming under enormous pressure from the casinos to have their breasts enlarged. We wouldn't hear about their cases until they started having problems and came to us for help. The silicone would just rot their breasts away. It was horrible, and of course there went their livelihood."
In the '70s and '80s, however, implant makers and plastic surgeons assured women that "breast augmentation" was a simple, safe procedure. In 1982, the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons (ASPRS) declared that small breasts were "deformities . . . a disease which in most patients result in feelings of inadequacy, lack of self-confidence, distortion of body image, and total lack of well-being due to a lack of self-perceived femininity. The enlargement of the underdeveloped female breast is, therefore, often very necessary to ensure an improved quality of life for the patient."
Breast augmentation was also a profitable procedure. Doctors paid $200 to $300 for a set of implants, and charged $4,000 for the one-hour surgery needed to put them in. By 1981, cosmetic surgery had become the fastest-growing specialty in American medicine, and doctors started aggressively marketing their services. In 1983, the ASPRS launched a "practice enhancement" campaign, issuing a flood of news releases, "patient education" brochures, videotapes and other marketing materials. Surgeons like California's Dr. Vincent Forshan bought advertisements displaying their well-endowed clients posing next to luxury cars, with headlines boasting, "Automobile by Ferrari. Body by Forshan."
By the late eighties, advertising had created "a breast-implant free-for-all," according to Franklin Rose, a Houston plastic surgeon who himself performed over 2,500 augmentations. "Twins would come in, sisters would come in, and I'd go from room to room," he said, describing his typical operating schedule.
Another Houston doctor, Gerald Johnson, recalled holding "Grand Teton Days" at least once a month. "The most surgeries we did in one day was seventeen," he said. A successful surgeon could hope to earn as much as $3 million a year, and Johnson celebrated his success by building a breast-shaped pool at his home with a nipple-shaped hot tub. By 1990, over a million women had gotten "boob jobs."
The Bubble Bursts
Until the mid-eighties, no one paid much attention as women began appearing in their doctors' offices with vague and often undiagnosable ailments. Their problems seemed unrelated to their implants: chronic fatigue, memory problems, rashes, joint pain and stiffness, night sweats, skin tightness, swollen glands, headaches, nausea. The symptoms often resembled rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or scleroderma--serious diseases reminiscent of the immune-system disorders that Japanese doctors had reported in early recipients of silicone injections.
In the 1950s and 60s, Dow Corning's parent company, Dow Chemical, had tested liquid silicone and found that it had the potential to migrate throughout the body, affecting the immune and central nervous systems. In 1974, Dow Corning researchers had injected rabbits with silicone and concluded that "organo-silicone compounds can stimulate the immune response." The results of these tests, however, were kept confidential and did not disturb the consensus of opinion within the company, which continued to believe that silicone was an inert, harmless substance.
"I started going to internists with these symptoms and problems and I went to two different internists and no one could find a problem," said implant recipient Marie Walsh. "I had no history of health problems until these polyurethane implants were done and then I developed the blatant rheumatoid arthritis symptoms and, of course, the lupus rash developed at the same time." Walsh eventually started a women's support group and began to receive phone calls from other women, "calling me from all over the United States with these problems and they're crying because they've said, 'Now I have someone just like me.' . . . We, as women, were going to Ob-Gyn's, G.P.'s, M.D.'s, not thinking these problems were related to our breast implants."