A number of readers have asked why it is that I have commented extensively on ANR's (Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights) action alert that I believe has misled the public. After all, isn't the real enemy the tobacco industry and isn't that where we in public health should all be putting our focus? Shouldn't we all be joining together for that purpose?
Actually, I think the primary focus of any public health organization and all public health advocates should be, first and foremost, to be responsible and ethical in its actions. To me, responsible and ethical means being careful to communicate health issues in a way that is intellectually honest and forthright and that can reasonably be expected not to mislead the public.
The claim that Robert McCallum is a former tobacco industry lawyer is most certainly going to lead many readers of ANR's alert to believe that he previously represented the tobacco industry. The truth, however, is that he was a partner in a law firm that did tobacco industry work, but he himself did not represent tobacco clients.
Why is this distinction so important? Because it is going to have substantial implications for how the public views McCallum's character. If the public believes he was a partner in a law firm that did tobacco industry work but that he has never represented a tobacco client in his life, then I believe the public will perceive much less of an egregious violation of ethical standards by this individual. They may not even find anything inappropriate about the action, or they may at least have some indecision about the propriety of the individual. (Clearly, there is some feeling that McCallum's participation in the case is not entirely inappropriate as he was officially cleared by the DOJ Ethics Office.)
However, if the public believes he was a tobacco industry lawyer (that is, he represented a tobacco company in the past), then I believe the public will perceive this individual as having egregiously violated ethical standards by participating in the DOJ tobacco lawsuit and his character and reputation will be completely shot in the public's eye.
If ANR is going to contribute to diminishing the character and reputation of an individual in the public's eye, then I think it should at least be based on an accurate perception of the truth.
The fact that ANR is a public health organization with a mission of reducing tobacco-related disease and not a political organization with some political agenda as its primary aim is critical in my judgment that the burden of assuring accurate information in its personal attack on McCallum is on the organization.
This is why I do not find it overwhelmingly disturbing that politicians have used the same misleading information in their attack against McCallum. Politicians issue these kinds of personal attacks every day but individual political gain is arguably the primary end of those politicians. I'm not stating that's it's right, I'm just suggesting that politicians and political organizations are out there primarily to achieve political ends. Contributors to these organizations are donating money specifically for these purposes.
But not so with public health organizations. Contributors are donating money because they expect it will be used to prevent smoking-related disease, not to issue personal attacks on individuals using misleading information. The burden of assuring accurate information in issuing a personal attack shifts far in the direction of that organization. Anything less than extreme care in assuring that its communications are not misleading to the public, especially if it is attacking an individual, does not seem acceptable or appropriate in light of the expectations of contributors to that organization.
But more importantly, anything less than extreme care in assuring that its communications are not misleading to the public in an attack on an individual does not seem acceptable or appropriate in light of basic ethical standards of conduct for a public health organization.
Right now, I honestly believe that the biggest enemy of the tobacco control movement is its own loss of integrity. I believe that right now, by pointing out where we may have gone awry and hopefully, helping to steer us back on track, I can make a greater contribution to the effort to reduce smoking-related morbidity and mortality than I could by joining others in their incessant political attacks. Politicians and political appointees will come and go, but the reputation of the tobacco control movement is here to stay.