It is becoming increasingly difficult for me to be able to trust information I receive from anti-smoking groups. And it's not just the fallacious claims from some groups that 30 minutes of secondhand smoke causes hardening of the arteries. As we found out last week, even the Surgeon General apparently can no longer be trusted to provide accurate information, as he told us all that just a "brief exposure" to secondhand smoke is all that it takes to cause heart disease and lung cancer. And yesterday, another anti-smoking group told us that the Florida Supreme Court's reversal of the $145 billion verdict against the tobacco companies and decertification of the class was a "devastating blow" to the tobacco companies.
It seems that it is becoming impossible for anti-smoking groups to communicate information to the public without overly sensationalizing it, spinning it, or distorting it to the point that it becomes misleading. Why is this? Why can't these groups simply call a spade a spade and report information to the public in an unadulterated fashion? Why do they apparently feel a need to distort everything to suit some perceived need? Why doesn't the simple truth cut it anymore?
The Rest of the Story
I can only speculate. We live in an age where there is so much exposure to the media and most of it comes in sound-bite fashion. Scores of news headlines hit you every time you turn on your computer. They flash across the screen when you turn on your television. They overwhelm you when you are trying to make it through your email. Our attention is very short - if something can't be said in 5-8 seconds, it's too long for us to pay attention to. We want the bottom line and we want it instantly.
With all the media clutter that surrounds us, it is increasingly difficult for public health groups to break through with their messages. Perhaps there is a perception, on the part of anti-smoking groups, that in order to be heard they have to produce sensational headlines. It is not enough to say that chronic exposure to secondhand smoke is hazardous. You have to say that just 30 minutes of secondhand smoke can kill you. It is not enough to say that brief exposure to secondhand smoke has effects on the cells lining the coronary arteries. You have to say that brief exposure is enough to cause heart disease and lung cancer. It is not enough to say that the Florida Supreme Court decision in Engle is a tremendous victory for Big Tobacco, but that individual lawsuits can still proceed and could result in substantial damages. You have to say that the decision was a devastating blow to the tobacco companies.
Our society, and especially the way we present information, has become increasingly polarized. There is no more middle ground in public communication. It's all or nothing. Either secondhand smoke kills instantly, or we don't perceive the information as being adequate to be communicated to the public. Either a court decision is the best thing to happen to anti-smoking efforts since sliced bread, or the facts are not worthy of being reported as they are.
Everything is black and white. The tobacco companies are evil. Anti-smoking groups are angelic. And anyone who opposes tobacco control measures or criticizes anti-smoking groups is evil.
Secondhand smoke must be banned everywhere. We can't stop at the workplace, or in outdoor places where people cannot avoid the smoke, or even in all outdoor places. We must invade into the car and home and eliminate all traces of secondhand smoke. If you oppose any of this, you are a tobacco stooge. And if you happen to be an anti-smoking advocate and they know you don't take tobacco money, then you're simply a traitor.
Exposing children to secondhand smoke is not just one example of a risk that parents expose their children to. Instead, it's child abuse.
Smokers are not individuals who have made a decision to engage in an unhealthy behavior, though one which they find enjoyable or gain some other perceived benefits from. Instead, they are social outcasts who are a drain on society and are undeserving of employment.
The polarization has become extreme. And it has pervaded all aspects of our work in tobacco control.
But nowhere is it so striking as it is in our public communications. You have to take everything to the absolute extreme or it's apparently not perceived as being worthy of being communicated, even if it's the truth.
The problem, however, is that once you start going too far, your public claims no longer jive with people's observed experience. And that's when people start to reject your claims and you lose your credibility and the public's trust.
That was the mistake Bush made in promoting the Iraq war. He was able to convince the majority of us that Saddam Hussein was a substantial threat to our security because of his weapons of mass destruction. But when those were nowhere to be found and we were then told that we had to keep fighting because Iraq still represented a threat to our freedom and security, it no longer was consistent with our observed experience. Public support began to fall, as did the public's trust in the president.
The same mistake was made with respect to eavesdropping on our telephone conversations. Up to a point, we could accept that there was some need to protect us from terrorist threats and that potential plots could be uncovered by tapping our conversations. But when the intrusion was done indiscriminately and involved people and issues that clearly had nothing to do with national security, the claim that this degree of intrusion into our privacy was necessary to protect us from terrorism no longer jived with our observed personal experience.
And so it is with the Surgeon General's claims. He's telling us that even a brief exposure to secondhand smoke is enough to cause heart disease and lung cancer, but that simply doesn't accord with people's observed experiences. They fail to see people around them keeling over from heart attacks after 30 minutes of exposure to drifting tobacco smoke exposure, and so they will discount the Surgeon General's claims. But with that discounting will necessarily come the discounting of the Surgeon General's credibility and the loss of the public's trust.
The same is true, I believe, with other anti-smoking groups that are making similar claims.
And the same is true with groups like the Tobacco Control Resource Center, which is the group telling us that the Florida Supreme Court's decision to throw out the $145 billion verdict against Big Tobacco is a devastating blow to the companies. People's observed experience is that Philip Morris stock rose by more than $5 today, more than a 7% increase in stock value in one day. That experience simply doesn't fit with the claim that this decision was a devastating blow to Big Tobacco. So people are going to reject the Center's claim. And won't they be less likely to put their trust in the Center's communications about the outcome of tobacco cases in the future?
Just as much of the public has learned to discount President Bush as a reliable source of accurate and unadulterated information on critical issues that affect us, I fear that much of the public will also learn to discount the tobacco control movement as a reliable source of information about smoking and health, legal, and policy matters.
Sensationalizing the facts in order to try to capture the attention of the public may appear to be the most prudent course of action in the short run, but in the long run, it will only hurt our credibility and erode the public's trust in us as a reliable source of information.