Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Cleveland Plain Dealer Article Highlights Fallacious Claims of One Anti-Smoking Group

An article in today's Cleveland Plain Dealer highlights my concerns about the fallacious claims that one anti-smoking group - SmokeFreeOhio - is making about the acute cardiovascular health effects of secondhand smoke.

According to the article: "Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health, accuses the health group SmokeFree Ohio of touting bogus scientific data in its campaign for a statewide ban on public indoor smoking on the November ballot.

An item that Siegel posted Thursday on his blog ( takes issue with several claims about the dangers of secondhand smoke. SmokeFree Ohio, a campaign of the American Cancer Society, has stated on its Web site that 20 minutes of exposure elevates risk of heart attack and that 30 minutes of exposure can cause narrowing of blood vessels, contributing to hardening of the arteries. ...

The statements 'are so wildly misleading and inaccurate that they completely fly in the face of pure common sense,' Siegel wrote. ...

Tracy Sabetta of SmokeFree Ohio said the information cited by the group comes from the American Heart Association and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ... Her organization stands by the statements, she said.

'I don't come up with any number of my own,' she said. 'I only report numbers from credible sources.'"

The Rest of the Story

There's just one problem with SmokeFreeOhio's defense of its claims: nowhere does the CDC (or the American Heart Association for that matter) state that 30 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure can cause narrowing of the arteries and hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) and nowhere does CDC state that 20 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure reduces the ability of the heart to pump, thereby putting a nonsmoker at an increased heart attack risk.

Actually, I think that SmokeFreeOhio is on even less acceptable ground now than it was before. If it were simply misinterpreting the data itself, then one could argue that it was a simple misinterpretation of the data.

But now, since it insists that it is merely copying a claim from the CDC, it becomes clear that SmokeFreeOhio is intentionally misleading the public, because there is no such claim that CDC made.

Where, I would ask, does CDC claim that 30 minutes of exposure to secondhand smoke causes "narrowing of blood vessels, restricting the flow of blood and contributing to hardening of the arteries?"

Where does CDC claim that 30 minutes of exposure boost your risk of building up fat deposits in such a way that it could "lead to heart attacks and strokes?"

Where does CDC claim that 2 hours of secondhand smoke exposure increases the risk of "an irregular heart beat that can itself be fatal or trigger a heart attack?"

And where does CDC claim that 20 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure reduces "the ability of the heart to pump?"

The truth is that the CDC makes no such claims.

SmokeFreeOhio cannot dismiss my challenge to its scientific integrity by throwing it off on CDC. Because CDC didn't make the claims - SmokeFreeOhio did.

Interestingly, the American Heart Association statement that SmokeFreeOhio states it is using as the basis of these claims makes no such assertions. It simply points out that chronic exposure to secondhand smoke may cause atherosclerosis, a fact that is not relevant to this discussion of the acute effects of a brief exposure to secondhand smoke.

The rest of the story is that SmokeFreeOhio is truly misleading the public about the acute cardiovascular effects of secondhand smoke, and they are apparently doing it intentionally, at least in my opinion. It is clear that they are not drawing on their own expertise to make these scientific judgments; they are simply relying on the statements of other groups. Thus, they must be able to produce the statements these other groups have made which back up their assertions. But they can't, because such statements don't exist. This amounts to what I see as a conscious and intentional attempt to mislead the public by sensationalizing the acute health effects of secondhand smoke.

It's one thing to take a controversial position and stand up for what you are saying. But it's another to attribute what you're saying to someone else, when that someone else never made such a statement. SmokeFreeOhio is apparently trying to hide behind a curtain. They are afraid to deal with the actual science. Rather then simply admit a mistake, they are attempting to mislead the public yet again by making us think that the CDC made these ridiculous claims.

Now, what SmokeFreeOhio is doing isn't just misleading and inaccurate; it's unethical.

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