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 City
The 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
, autism has become irrevocably linked to the anti-vaccination
movement.  There are, however, no links
between autismand 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
This speaks directly to the nature of the believer in
conspiracies.  Ever since writing about
Jenny McCarthy and the anti-vaccination movement for CNN
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 VaccineInformation 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
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. 

One Reply to “Chili’s Backs out of Promotion with Anti-Vax Group”

  1. Anonymous says:

    It's important to note that the preferred language is generally "autistic people" rather than "people with autism" among most autistic people.

    And the entire argument of the anti-vaxxers is based in the idea that I'd be better off dead of measles than autistic. This is bullshit.

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