I was always taught that it's OK to make mistakes, but that the important thing is that you admit when you have made one, correct it, and apologize for any damage that it may have caused.
Well - the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (TFK) made a big mistake. Exactly one year ago, it ran what I think was a very deceptive and disingenuous campaign to promote the FDA tobacco legislation. This campaign was highlighted by a communication to TFK constituents stating that Big Tobacco was opposing the FDA legislation and was mounting a huge campaign to defeat it.
This was, in my opinion, quite clearly an intentional failure to disclose that the largest member of Big Tobacco by far - Philip Morris - was in fact supporting the legislation and using its massive lobbying and public relations resources to promote the bill's passage.
By neglecting to mention this critical fact, and by not being forthright about Philip Morris' support for the bill, I believe that TFK misled its constituents into believing that this was simply an issue of public health vs. Big Tobacco: that everyone in public health supported the bill and that everyone in Big Tobacco opposed it. But this was not the truth. In fact, the Campaign was well aware that Philip Morris supported the bill and that many tobacco control advocates believed that it represented a huge bailout for Big Tobacco that would harm the public's health. This "nuance" was not revealed to TFK's constituents in the above communication.
The mistake actually continues to this day. Today, on its web site, TFK still implies that Big Tobacco is fighting the FDA's efforts to regulate tobacco, even though the largest company of Big Tobacco is actually pushing vigorously for such legislation.
A special report, entitled "Tobacco vs. the FDA" is described as outlining "the Food and Drug Administration’s tireless efforts to regulate tobacco as a drug and the industry’s escalating legal challenges, which continue to block the federal government from protecting American children."
I think it is misleading, and probably just plain inaccurate, to state that the tobacco industry is continuing to block the federal government from regulating tobacco, since Philip Morris is pushing the federal government to do so. In fact, Philip Morris expressed significant disappointment that the 2004 FDA tobacco legislation failed, and has made the re-introduced FDA bills its key legislative priority for the 2005 Congressional session: "Although PM USA has been increasingly successful in pursuing its societal alignment initiatives, regrettably, Congressional legislation providing for regulation of the tobacco industry by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was not passed in 2004. Although this was a significant disappointment, obtaining FDA regulation of the tobacco industry remains a key priority."
By calling the report "Tobacco vs. the FDA," I think TFK is implying to the public that Big Tobacco is against FDA regulation. This is misleading, and I think furthers my argument that a correction is warranted.
It would be more accurate to title the report "Michael Siegel vs. the FDA" than it is to imply that it is Big "Tobacco vs. the FDA." While I am clearly and unequivocally opposed to the FDA legislation and have and will work vigorously to kill it, Big Tobacco is not clearly and unequivocally opposed and the largest company of Big Tobacco has and will in fact work vigorously to get this legislation enacted.
The Rest of the Story
Look - a mistake is a mistake and even if hundreds or thousands of public health advocates were, or continue to be, misled by the Campaign's inaccurate or misleading statements, I think TFK's actions could be forgiven if they simply corrected the problem and apologized.
For two months now the clock has been ticking, and I believe TFK is well aware that there is a legitimate concern that their claims, both now and in the past, have misled a substantial number of public health practitioners.
It is quite clear, I believe, that TFK is not going to apologize or to correct the problem, and that its deceptive and misleading campaign, highlighted by its current claim that this is a story about "Tobacco vs. the FDA," is going to continue.
It does not appear that honesty is going to be forthcoming from TFK.
Unfortunately, since TFK is the largest and most influential organization within the anti-smoking movement, its actions really do tend to represent the values and character of the entire movement. So I think the clear impression to the public is that honesty and integrity are not going to be forthcoming from the anti-smoking movement.
It appears that TFK's political agenda - which is for some reason an obsession with enacting protectionist legislation for Philip Morris that is the world's chief tobacco company's highly desired legislative goal - is going to trump concerns over honesty, forthrightness, and integrity.
And this is the group that wants to "represent the health interests of the American people?" First, TFK needs to learn the importance of being honest and forthright in their public statements, and the importance of being able to take into consideration other factors (like ethics) in addition to its own political desires. Then, maybe we can talk about representing the interests of the American people.
The rest of the story casts a dark shadow on the entire anti-smoking movement because TFK's lack of honesty, integrity, and forthrightness, but most importantly, their simple unwillingness to admit a mistake, reflects poorly on all groups in the movement.