Monday, November 21, 2005

IN MY VIEW: Show Us the Evidence - Time for ANR to Document FORCES' Tobacco Industry Funding or Remove it from its Website

Those who have been reading my posts over the past week will know that I have recently come to the conclusion that a number of anti-smoking groups are very interested in the science behind what they are doing only when that science supports their pre-determined agenda. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that they tend to interpret the science in a way that supports their pre-determined agenda, rather than to let the science dictate the agenda in the first place.

While most of the examples I have provided relate to the justification for various tobacco control policies, I now share an example of an anti-smoking group ignoring the clear "scientific" evidence in order to support what I think is its pre-determined agenda to attack a group that it doesn't like.

In its section on front groups, Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights (ANR) lists FORCES and states that "the background information from this document [a document revealing that the National Smokers' Alliance was formed by, and funded by, Philip Morris and was therefore a Big Tobacco front group] is still relevant to other smokers' rights groups such as FORCES."

While the actual title on the page is "Front Groups & Allies," I think it's a fair inference that ANR is accusing FORCES of being a front group rather than merely being an ally for two reasons:
  • ANR puts FORCES in the same category as the National Smokers' Alliance (NSA), a true front group, and claims that the information related to the funding of the NSA is "still relevant" to FORCES; and
  • ANR provides a detailed discussion of the financial connections between FORCES and Big Tobacco, including the issue of whether FORCES is funded by the tobacco industry.
In order to help evaluate the evidence behind ANR's attack on FORCES, ANR provides a definition of "front group" that we can use. It links to the following definition: "A front group is an organization that purports to represent one agenda while in reality it serves some other party or interest whose sponsorship is hidden or rarely mentioned. ... For example, the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) claims that its mission is to defend the rights of consumers to choose to eat, drink and smoke as they please. In reality, CCF is a front group for the tobacco, restaurant and alcoholic beverage industries, which provide all or most of its funding."

Essentially, I believe that ANR is making a public accusation (even if by inference) that FORCES is a Big Tobacco front group that is funded, at least in part, by Big Tobacco.

The Rest of the Story

Let's examine the evidence that ANR provides to back up its accusation that FORCES is a Big Tobacco front group.

According to ANR: "For years FORCES has claimed to be a membership organization that did not receive tobacco funding. Internal tobacco industry documents are inconclusive on this point...".

It's pretty pathetic if this is the best that ANR can do. The organization itself admits that the evidence is "inconclusive." Well if the evidence is inconclusive, then it most certainly does not support a conclusion that FORCES is a Big Tobacco front group.

What I think is going on here is that ANR has come to a pre-determined conclusion that FORCES is a front group for the tobacco industry and ANR is essentially ignoring the fact that the evidence simply doesn't support its conclusion, or else it is interpreting the evidence in such a distorted way in order to make it appear that it supports its conclusion.

I don't think there is any evidence to support a conclusion that FORCES is a Big Tobacco front group. And there is a lot of evidence that it is not. I have had the opportunity to learn a lot about FORCES and its members over the past few months, and I've been educated. I had been greatly misled by ANR and I found out that the truth is entirely different from what ANR had led me to believe.

But even if the evidence were truly inconclusive (and not conclusive that FORCES is not a tobacco front group), I believe that the burden of proof is on ANR to prove it. Because you just don't make a public attack without being able to document your claims.

Even the definition ANR relies upon for front group makes it clear that a number of smokers' rights groups may not, in fact, be front groups because they are "self-initiated" rather than initiated by the tobacco companies:

"The shadowy way front groups operate makes it difficult to know whether a seemingly independent grassroots is actually representing some other entity. Thus, citizen smokers' rights groups and organizations of bartenders or restaurant workers working against smoking bans are sometimes characterized as front groups for the tobacco industry, but it is possible that some of these groups are self-initiated... ."

I think ANR should have paid a little more attention to the definition it is relying upon and realized that smokers' rights groups may be self-initiated, rather than initiated and run by the tobacco companies. In this case, the former is true, not the latter. Unless ANR can document that the latter is the case, their attack is simply not substantiated.

Now even if the issue is whether FORCES is a Big Tobacco "ally," I believe the evidence supports a conclusion that there is no alliance between the two groups. Because by definition, an alliance requires that the two groups form a connection between them. But there is simply no formal connection that I am aware of between FORCES and the tobacco companies.

Yes - perhaps the tobacco companies have pursued a possible alliance with FORCES in the past, and yes, perhaps, as ANR suggests, FORCES has pursued a possible alliance with the industry in the past. However, the important point is that those efforts did not result in an alliance.

The truth is that, as stated on its web site: "FORCES is a non-profit organization dedicated to the support and protection of consumers' rights. We advocate the restoration of the civil and human rights of ALL consumers. We have no link with the tobacco companies, and we are supported solely by member donations and volunteer work."

ANR is publicly claiming that FORCES is lying. In my view, that requires documentation. So it's time to show its constituents the evidence.

ANR should immediately provide to us its documentation for the claim that FORCES is funded by the tobacco industry and that there is a formal alliance between FORCES and Big Tobacco. If it cannot provide such documentation, then FORCES should be immediately removed from its web site. Anything less than that is a disservice to the public health community, as well as to the public who ANR is supposed to be serving.

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