TRENTON, N.J. — Calling the federal agency that makes recommendations on vaccines a "sock puppet" for that industry, Robert Kennedy Jr. spoke out Monday against making it harder for parents to exempt their children from vaccinations.
Kennedy, the nephew of President John Kennedy and son of former U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, joined groups that oppose school-attendance vaccination requirements for a news conference in the New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton. The Legislature is considering bills that would tighten rules for vaccine exemptions.
Kennedy said he supports using vaccines and had all six of his children vaccinated, but he said the pharmaceutical industry profits immensely from the government's recommendations. The Food and Drug Administration licenses vaccines, and then the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends to doctors what vaccines to use, who should get them and when to administer them.
He said school-attendance rules mean that vaccines are the only product Americans are required to consume and that Congress protected pharmaceutical companies from liability for problems stemming from them in the 1980s.
"All of the studies show the primary reason people don't vaccinate — the primary reason — is mistrust of the regulators," he said. "The solution to this problem, to the extent that it's a problem in New Jersey, is to restore the regulatory process, not to compel people to do something that they may feel they have very good reason not to do."
Lawmakers are pushing bills that allow parents to exempt their children from vaccine requirements only for medical and religious reasons. Under current law parents can cite a general religious objection, but the new legislation requires parents to furnish either a letter from the child's doctor showing a medical reason against vaccination, or a notarized letter demonstrating that inoculation violates "bona fide religious tenets."
The issue gained attention earlier this year after a major measles outbreak was linked to an infected visitor at Disneyland.
Then Gov. Chris Christie suffered a round of scathing attacks after making comments on the issue during a trip in the United Kingdom. He said that while he and his wife vaccinated their children, parents should have some "measure of choice in things as well."
Asked about the proposed legislation during his monthly radio show Monday evening, Christie was non-committal.
"I haven't looked at the bill yet so I don't know," he said. Asked whether current laws need any changes, he said, "You know, I'm always open to people trying to improve the laws that we have on the books now. So let's look at what they put on my desk. And if they put something on my desk that makes sense, I'll sign it. And if they put something on my desk that I don't think makes sense, I'll veto it."
Kennedy is a liberal radio talk host and activist and editor of a book called "Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak." The chemical is a mercury-containing preservative that has been removed from routine childhood vaccines in the U.S.
He did not focus on the New Jersey legislation during the news conference, but met with lawmakers, including Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Democratic state Sen. Joe Vitale, in Trenton on Monday about their bill.
Vitale said in a statement that Kennedy misunderstood the intent of his bill.
"He thought the bill removed the religious exemption when all it does is clarify it," Vitale said in a statement. "The legislation maintains both religious and medical exemptions for student immunizations in New Jersey. It simply clarifies the process for religious exemptions to have the applicants provide an explanation with the request"
Kennedy did not meet with Christie, who said he was unaware Kennedy was even in Trenton.
"Was he? I didn't know. He didn't stop by to say hello," said the governor. "I was there all day."