Thursday, November 17, 2011

Anti-Smoking Advocates are Defending Defamatory Attacks Against Private Citizens

In response to yesterday's post in which I revealed that an anti-smoking researcher posted a defamatory comment on the Smokefree DC web site which falsely accuses Michael McFadden of being paid by the tobacco industry to oppose tobacco control measures, I received a number of responses from tobacco control advocates defending the defamatory comment.

The advocates who defended the defamatory comment had two main arguments. First, McFadden has published on the FORCES site and FORCES is known to be a tobacco industry front group. Second, there is no proof that McFadden has not taken tobacco industry money.

The advocates have it wrong on both accounts. Taking the second argument first, the burden of proof is upon the one making an accusation to provide evidence to support that accusation. If someone writes on my blog that I have taken tobacco money to write posts that oppose outdoor smoking bans, the burden of proof is on that individual to provide the evidence to back up his claim.

As far as the first argument goes, it is simply not true that FORCES is a tobacco front group, and no evidence has ever been put forward to support that claim. More than five years ago - on February 28, 2006 to be exact - I issued a challenge to all anti-smoking groups and advocates to produce evidence that FORCES had received major funding from tobacco companies. There was no response, and to date, I have still not received or seen any evidence to support the front group assertion.

Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights continues to insinuate that FORCES is a tobacco industry front group, but has yet to provide any evidence. The only relevant fact that ANR provides is that: "a 1999 Philip Morris (PM) memo indicated that FORCES did not accept tobacco industry funding." So in fact, ANR knows that FORCES is not a Big Tobacco front group but continues to make the false accusation anyway.

This is exactly why I parted ways with ANR (I was at one time a member of ANR's Board of Directors). 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.

The rest of the story is that ANR and a number of anti-smoking advocates continue to accuse 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. Even worse, some anti-smoking advocates are falsely accusing private citizens like Michael McFadden of being tobacco industry-funded "moles" in an effort to discredit them.

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

ADDENDUM - November 17, 2011 - 8:55 a.m.: I have just been informed that the defamatory comment has been removed from the Smokefree DC web site. I applaud this action and hope that it will usher in a new era in which we can treat members of the public with respect, even if they oppose our policies, and in which we can stick to the truth and to documented facts.

No comments: