Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Challenging Dogma (Post #2): Anyone Who Disagrees With the Anti-Smoking Movement is Affiliated with the Tobacco Industry

In the 20 years that I was a member of the tobacco control movement, I was led to believe that there were only two sides to any anti-smoking issue: our side and the tobacco industry side. Therefore, anyone who disagreed with our position had to be, in some way, affiliated with the tobacco industry. I was also taught to respond to their arguments not on any scientific grounds or on the merit of their arguments, but by simply discrediting the person by attacking their affiliation with the tobacco companies.

I think it was largely my years of affiliation with Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights (ANR) that led me to this perspective. But this perspective is by no means unique to ANR.

A prime example of this perspective is a November 2001 article published in the American Journal of Public Health, entitled "Junking Science to Promote Tobacco." The abstract of the article makes it clear that the paper's purpose is to discuss "the ways the tobacco industry has
created controversy about risk assessment and about the scientific evidence of the health hazards of secondhand smoke." Note that the article is about how the tobacco industry undermines the science.

In a section titled "Distorting Risk," the paper states: "There are many groups and consultants who were funded by the industry, both directly and through subsidiary companies, and who provided the tobacco industry with ample material, in the form of testimony, reports, and other publications, to fight tobacco policy and regulations."

One such individual mentioned in the section is Martha Perske. According to the article: "In February 2001, on the Web site, Martha Perske provided a critique of studies linking passive smoking and lung cancer. In the article, she grossly misstates the WHO’s work in this field. Perske has no formal scientific training and her one publication in the peer-reviewed literature is a letter to the editor—which appeared, incidentally, in the journal edited by Alvan Feinstein. She describes herself as a “smokers’ advocate,” but industry documents show that she stayed in close contact with Philip Morris, asking for their review of and comments on her activities."

Without a doubt in my mind, this article is attempting to malign the character of Martha Perske by claiming that she is, in fact, simply an arm of the tobacco industry - an example of an individual who the tobacco industry is using to do its work for it. By the context in which this attack appears, it clearly, in my mind, construes to the reader that Perske is part of the tobacco industry's effort to undermine science, and more specifically, that she is affiliated with the industry. The paper even cites tobacco industry documents in an attempt to support its claim.

The Rest of the Story

There's just one problem.

Martha Perske has nothing to do with the tobacco industry. She is not affiliated with the industry. She has not received money from the industry. She is a private citizen who happens to have devoted a significant portion of her "free-time" to what she perceives as a pursuit to promote policy that accords with her interpretation of the scientific facts (albeit an interpretation that differs from most in the tobacco control movement).

I have known Ms. Perske for the past 10 years, over which time we have corresponded, both in writing and by telephone, many times about some quite sophisicated issues related to the interpretation of epidemiologic studies relating secondhand smoke to lung cancer risk. During my time as a public servant at CDC, Ms. Perske was one of the most intelligent, insightful, and engaged citizens who I served, even though she disagreed with my own scientific work and subsequently published one of the most scathing (and scientifically meticulous and insightful) critiques of my work.

In fact, Ms. Perske's work has nothing to do with the tobacco industry, and she is certainly not a part of the tobacco industry's efforts to undermine science.

In my view, the AJPH article is inaccurate, or at very least, misleading in the way it portrays Martha Perske. And because it distorts the truth of the matter in a way that could harm the reputation of this individual, I view it as being irresponsible. That there seems to be an assumption that someone who has views that differ from the anti-smoking view must automatically be working for the tobacco industry is unfortunate. And that the public would be misled to believe that a private individual was just a pawn in a tobacco industry campaign is disturbing.

What is most disturbing to me is that the paper attempts to malign this individual's character and to discredit her arguments solely on an implied claim that is false: that she is simply a tobacco industry mole.

In fact, her work is scientifically meticulous and quite insightful, and it deserved to be addressed on its merits. My own examination of the work that Perske has done reveals arguments that reflect the most critical concerns regarding the epidemiologic issues at hand. In fact, of all the critiques written of my work, there is none that comes close in scientific merit, in my opinion, to that which Ms. Perske has put together.

I recently revealed an experience in which ANR refused to allow me to clarify my own statement about two non-industry authors who disagreed with the evidence relating secondhand smoke and lung cancer because it didn't want to do anything that could possibly be construed as saying something positive about these individuals and thus giving them credence, even though it would have been absolutely true, and clearer than my original text (and more importantly, even though I was the author and had copyright of my own article).

Most recently, ANR has apparently decided not to clarify its misleading personal attack against yet another individual. This time, ANR has claimed that Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum is a "former tobacco industry lawyer." This attack, which is clearly intended to malign his character, is at best misleading, and at worst, inaccurate: the truth is that McCallum never represented the tobacco industry in any litigation or any other matter in his life (to the best of my understanding). He happens to have been a partner at a firm that did patent work for R.J. Reynolds, but he never represented the company himself. I don't see how that makes him a tobacco industry lawyer. Even if technically correct under some absurdly broad interpretation of the term, it is still clearly misleading to large numbers of people in the American public who are reading this attack on the ANR website.

As I have found out over the past two decades, there are a lot of individuals who disagree with a number of positions that the anti-smoking movement has taken (interestingly, now I find myself to be one of them). And not all of these individuals are affiliated with, or working for the tobacco industry. As individuals who are not part of a tobacco industry campaign, these people are entitled to express their opinions and their arguments really deserve to be addressed on their merits. At very least, anti-smoking organizations and advocates should not attack these individuals. Attacking their arguments is legitimate, but attacking the individuals, in these cases, is not.

Looking back, I have to admit that I am sorry to have been part of a movement that has such a narrow view of the world that it sees only two sides to any tobacco control issue - its own side and the tobacco industry side, and which has therefore attacked individuals who take a differing view, assuming without appropriate evidence that these individuals are part of a tobacco industry campaign.

It is simply not fair to people like Martha Perske. I have always been impressed with the tremendously well-researched, meticulous, and precise work that she has presented. I also respect the fact that she has taken the time to research and write on these issues as an individual citizen. So I am sorry to have been a part of a movement that treated her in the way that it did.

The rest of the story reveals that anti-smoking organizations and advocates have, and still do, jump at the opportunity to attack the character of individuals who disagree with their positions and to attempt to discredit their arguments not based on their merits, but on the assumed affiliation of these individuals with the tobacco industry; however, the evidence to back up such assertions is not always sufficient, and in some cases, the public has been misled, resulting in undue harm to the reputation of these individuals.

My experience and observations have led me to challenge this dogmatic perspective within the anti-smoking movement. There are now two sides to this issue, and I hope that both can now be heard. As Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote in his introduction to Mark Lane's Rush to Judgment: "The fact that the advocate believes his own version is not relevant: advocates often do. Before judgment can be given, the advocate of the other side must also be heard. ... He too believes in his brief. Thanks to that belief, he too may err in detail. But at least he has the right, which in America has often been denied to him, to a fair hearing. When both sides have been heard, and not before, posterity may judge."

No comments: