Tuesday, June 06, 2006

ANR Instructing Anti-Smoking Advocates to Insinuate That Opposition Groups of Being Big Tobacco-Funded Even in the Absence of Evidence

In a document that provides strategy recommendations for anti-smoking groups throughout the country, Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights (ANR) encourages these groups to accuse or insinuate that organizations that oppose smoke-free policies are Big Tobacco front groups, even in cases where there is no documentation that this is the case.

According to the strategy document:

"Front groups are generally business coalitions or associations funded by the tobacco industry, which appear in opposition shortly after a proposed law becomes public knowledge. These groups approach the local business community, predicting dire consequences from enactment of the law, such as by citing undocumented figures of loss of business in cities that have already passed laws.

The groups often hold meetings with local businesses, encouraging them to organize against the proposed law and providing assistance, such as posting flyers, circulating petitions, and sponsoring mail-in postcard campaigns. Representatives may testify at public hearings, but more often will attend without speaking, avoiding lawmakers' questions about their local membership, length of existence, and funding sources. ...

Advocates should carefully study local campaign laws and seek to shine the light on the funding of these groups and their connections to the tobacco industry. However, we don't always have a "smoking gun" linking the tobacco industry to these groups, either due to lax local campaign finance laws, or money getting funneled through third parties. In any case, showing that the suspicious groups are pulling out all the familiar tricks will encourage people to take the Big Tobacco message delivered by these groups with a grain of salt."

The Rest of the Story

This is exactly why I parted ways with ANR and why I am now uncomfortable associating myself with these anti-smoking groups. In my book, you don't make accusations or insinuate that a group is being funded by someone unless you have documentation to back it up. Here, ANR certainly seems to be suggesting that while it is unfortunate that anti-smoking groups cannot always find documentation that an opposition group is funded by Big Tobacco, it should not stop them from insinuating that they are funded by Big Tobacco.

This is the precise approach that ANR itself has taken, as they have accused FORCES of being an ally/front group of Big Tobacco without documenting any current relationship between the two and in light of the admission that there is in fact no evidence to link the two. This past March, ANR publicly insinuated (on a radio show) that there is a relationship between Philip Morris and FORCES, even though it had no evidence to that effect.

The truth is that there are a fair number of groups that oppose smoke-free policies not because these groups are funded by Big Tobacco, but because their members genuinely oppose these policies. It is true that there are also Big Tobacco front groups out there. But you don't know which you're dealing with unless you find out the funding situation of the group. And you have to have documentation of the funding to do that. It makes no sense to me to search for documentation of Big Tobacco funding and then, if you don't find it, insinuate that the group is funded by Big Tobacco anyway. Why bother spending the time investigating the funding status in the first place if you are going to accuse the group of being a tobacco industry front group regardless of the results of your investigation?

It is high time that we acknowledge that there are reasons why some individuals and groups to which they belong are unhappy with smoke-free laws, and that they don't have to be operating under the direction or funding of Big Tobacco to have these opinions. Opposing smoke-free laws doesn't necessarily make you a Big Tobacco front group.

FORCES is a great illustration of this. FORCES is a genuine group without funding from Big Tobacco which opposes smoke-free laws not because they are trying to protect the tobacco industry's profits, but because they don't want government telling them what to do and they don't believe that secondhand smoke is a health hazard that would justify government intrusion into the rights of businesses and individuals. I don't necessarily agree with that viewpoint, but I acknowledge it as a legitimate and genuine point of view that reflects the feelings of its membership and does not mean that the group is connected with Big Tobacco.

It seems to me that this trend in making statements without having documentation is occurring both in how we treat opponents of smoke-free laws as well as in how we communicate to the public about the health effects of secondhand smoke. We have become much less concerned about having documentation to support our attacks against opposition groups and much less concerned about having documentation to support our scientific claims as well.

It just seems to me that we are unable to allow the truth and documentation of the facts to get in the way of pursuing our agenda.

This is why it is so uncomfortable for me to be a part of this.

For one thing, it's not clear to me how or why my own research is still important. If we are just making up the claims anyway and not relying upon or needing documentation, then what is the need for my research?

And second, I think it violates a basic ethical principle of public health practice to operate in this way.

This strategy document is important because it demonstrates the status of our current thinking in tobacco control. Forget about documenting the facts. Just go out and make public statements and accusations in order to most effectively advocate for the policies we are supporting. Sure - we may end up being wrong, but because it's all for a good cause, our actions are justified in the long-run.

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