In a one-two punch, the British magazine New Scientist and the Wall Street Journal have run articles highlighting the misrepresentation of the scientific facts by a large number of anti-smoking groups.
It all started yesterday with the release of an editorial and an article in New Scientist.
The editorial ("Don't mangle the facts, even in a good cause") argues that although the cause of protecting people from secondhand smoke may be a good one, it is inappropriate and unjustified to communicate "bad science" to the public in support of such policies, as many anti-smoking groups are doing.
According to the editorial, "it looks as if anti-smoking campaigners have been distorting the facts to make their case. Some have claimed that a non-smoker exposed to tobacco smoke for just half an hour can permanently increase their risk of heart attack. Yet a new study suggests that such statements are not supported by science. ... It would take years of repeated exposure for the effects to become potentially lethal. ..."
"Some might say, so what? If tobacco smoke is harmful, then surely anything that reduces people's exposure to it should be welcomed. Not so. Using bad science can never be justified, even in pursuit of noble causes. It only gives ammunition to those seeking to undermine your case. When anti-smoking groups want to make their point they should stick to the solid facts. There are plenty of them."
The editorial links to a news article which highlights my research demonstrating that many anti-smoking groups are misrepresenting the scientific evidence regarding the acute cardiovascular effects of secondhand smoke.
According to the article:
"California is fast becoming a smoker's nightmare. ... in Calabasas, smoking in public places, including the street, has been illegal for over a year. ... Anti-smoking campaigners argue that the scientific evidence supporting such measures is compelling. For example, Washington DC-based Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), which is frequently quoted in media debates on tobacco control, states in its promotional material that a single exposure to tobacco fumes lasting just 30 minutes can raise a 'non-smoker's risk of suffering a fatal heart attack to that of a smoker.' The British Heart Foundation (BHF) makes similar claims, saying that just 30 minutes of exposure can affect the cells lining the coronary arteries and 'contribute to narrowing the coronary arteries and reducing blood flow to the heart'".
"Can the risks of such a brief exposure really be that high? Not according to tobacco researcher Mike Siegel of Boston University, who examined statements made by nearly 30 anti-tobacco groups including ASH (US) and the BHF, as well as clinical studies upon which the statements were based. He believes the anti-tobacco groups distort the science to make their point. In doing so, he fears the campaigners could undermine public trust in what they say, and in the validity of powerful, legitimate evidence that links chronic passive smoking to heart and lung disease."
"Although a half-hour exposure does cause measurable changes in blood flow, the effects are only transitory and blood circulation returns to normal within hours, sometimes immediately, Siegel says. There is no evidence that a single exposure causes any meaningful damage in the way that the groups claim. 'It is certainly not correct to claim that a single 30-minute exposure to second-hand smoke causes hardening of the arteries, heart disease, heart attacks or strokes,' he says. 'The anti-smoking movement has gone overboard. The ban on streets is not scientifically justified.'"
The most interesting part of the article is the response from anti-smoking groups whose misleading claims I cited.
The article states: "Others feel that while there is no proof 30 minutes of passive smoking raises the risk of heart attack for a non-smoker it is not unreasonable to highlight the effect smoke has on the heart. 'When you take the science and put it in the public domain you can't include all the caveats,' says Stanton Glantz, a tobacco researcher at the University of California in San Francisco. The messages have to be simplified so people can understand them." ...
"John Banzhaf, executive director of ASH (US), says their statement was lifted from a report by the US Centers for Disease Control, and though he admits the risk to the heart is transitory, he does not believe you have to spell this out explicitly. 'It is such an obvious thing,' he says."
Today, the Wall Street Journal highlighted these revelations in its "Informed Reader" section (page B7).
The Rest of the Story
Let's take the responses of the anti-smoking groups in turn:
1. "Others feel that while there is no proof 30 minutes of passive smoking raises the risk of heart attack for a non-smoker it is not unreasonable to highlight the effect smoke has on the heart. 'When you take the science and put it in the public domain you can't include all the caveats,' says Stanton Glantz, a tobacco researcher at the University of California in San Francisco. The messages have to be simplified so people can understand them."
Are you kidding me? People are too stupid to be able to understand that brief exposure to secondhand smoke has documented effects which could result in harm if repeated over many years? So instead, you have to just tell them that if you are exposed for 30 minutes, it could kill you?
You can't be serious.
Should we also tell the public that drinking three beers causes cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer, hepatitis, and potentially, death? Is the public also too stupid to understand that while having 3 drinks is not going to kill you, if you have 3 drinks every day for many years, it could cause severe disease or death? Should public health practitioners therefore be putting out messages in which we remove all the "caveats" and state that drinking 3 beers puts you at the same risk of death as being a chronic, life-long alcoholic? And that drinking 3 beers may very well kill you?
Essentially, what this response is doing is acknowledging that the statements being made by anti-smoking groups are misleading and deceptive, but arguing that these groups have no choice but to be misleading and deceptive because the public is too stupid to understand the truth.
The people are too stupid to understand the truth, so we have to lie to them.
2. "John Banzhaf, executive director of ASH (US), says their statement was lifted from a report by the US Centers for Disease Control, and though he admits the risk to the heart is transitory, he does not believe you have to spell this out explicitly. 'It is such an obvious thing,' he says."
But more importantly, what this anti-smoking group appears to be saying, in my view, is essentially: "We know that what we are saying is an absurd lie. But it is so absurd that we feel confident that people will not believe it. Thus, no damage will be done by our lie. It is so obvious that we are lying."
It is so obvious, in other words, that what the anti-smoking groups are claiming is such a bunch of garbage that the public will immediately see it for what it is and reject the claims.
If I were working for a tobacco company, I would be chomping at the bit. I could have a field day with this:
"We admit that smoking causes lung cancer, but there was nothing wrong with us claiming for years that smoking doesn't cause lung cancer. It is so obvious that what we were saying was absurd; no one in their right mind would have taken our statements on face value. Of course everyone knew what we were actually saying."
I guess the message here is that it's acceptable for anti-smoking groups to deceive the public as long as the deception is so great, and the claims so absurd, that no one in their right mind would believe those claims as stated. That way, no one will take the claim on face value and there is no need for the anti-smoking groups to defend the specific, stated scientific representations that they are making.
For me, this is truly a sentinel moment in tobacco control history. For the first time, anti-smoking groups have publicly acknowledged that they are, indeed, knowingly misrepresenting the science to the public.
They have defended their actions either by arguing that the public is too stupid to understand the actual truth or that the statements are so absurd that no one in their right mind would take them on face value.
Regardless, they have essentially acknowledged that the misrepresentation of science by perhaps hundreds of anti-smoking groups is intentional, and not just an innocent mistake.
Moreover, these groups have expressed absolutely no interest in correcting the mistakes and absolutely no interest in apologizing to the public for this deception.
This is disheartening to me. Because it means that at the end of the day, we have become no better than the tobacco companies themselves. In fact, right now, we may actually have sunk to a lower level than the current scientific claims that the industry is making. While they continue to become more accurate and forthcoming in their statements, we are heading in the opposite direction. We are becoming more and more deceptive, and less and less forthcoming and honest.
The saddest part of this is that we are apparently aware of what we are doing. We are defending it. We are not rejecting the assertion that what we are saying is inaccurate. These groups have readily acknowledged that they are making deceptive statements to the public. And they have the gall to publicly defend that deception?
The rest of the story is that it is now clear that anti-smoking groups are knowingly misleading the public in order to exaggerate the acute effects of secondhand smoke in an effort to promote widespread outdoor smoking bans.
It is clear that the truth is not enough to justify banning smoking everywhere outdoors. You can't convince policy makers that we need to ban smoking on every street and sidewalk if they believe that brief exposure to secondhand smoke does not cause disease. Misrepresenting the science is now being justified by the tobacco control movement.
Interestingly, while it is apparently acceptable for anti-smoking groups to misrepresent the science, it is intolerable and criminal for the tobacco companies to take even slight liberties with the use of language in their public communications. Of course, this double standard is justified because we're doing it all for the kids.
I have woken up today to a true nightmare -- the Wall Street Journal revealing that anti-smoking groups admit to knowingly deceiving the public in order to promote their policy goals.
While I always expected to read such revelations about the tobacco companies, I never expected to read the same thing about groups to which I have devoted years of my life in the service of providing sound scientific information to ensure that our communications to the public are honest, accurate, and dependable.
And to add insult to injury, the anti-smoking movement is now aware of this and they are defending it. There seems to be no hope that they will take note of the inappropriate actions and correct them in the future.
I never received a membership card when I joined the anti-smoking movement, but if I had, today is the day I'd be sending it back. These are not the ethical standards with which I would like to be associated.