Thursday, July 12, 2012

British Medical Association Suspends Membership of Physician for Questioning the Validity of a Secondhand Smoke Claim -- A Claim Which the BMA Itself Admits Was Incorrect

Yes, you read that headline correctly. The British Medical Association (BMA) has suspended the membership of a physician who, on a radio talk show, criticized the BMA for disseminating to the public what he believed was inaccurate data on the danger of secondhand smoke exposure in cars. And the BMA acknowledges that the physician was indeed correct and that the BMA's claim was a false one.

According to an article in The Pulse: "A retired GP has been suspended from the BMA Welsh Council until 2014 after he questioned the evidence behind the BMA's campaign to ban smoking in vehicles on BBC Radio. Dr Brendan O'Reilly, a retired GP, has also had his BMA membership suspended until he provides ‘an acceptable written apology' to four named BMA members, including Dr Vivienne Nathanson, head of the BMA science and ethics committee. In a hearing held yesterday a BMA Council panel said they considered Dr O'Reilly's language when describing his opposition to the BMA's use of statistics on the risks of passive smoking in cars as ‘unacceptable'. But Dr O'Reilly said he was being ‘harangued' by the BMA for simply expressing a difference of opinion." ...

"Among figures questioned by Dr O'Reilly was a statistic that children in cars are exposed to 23 times more toxins than people in a smoky bar. In its determination, the BMA admitted it did, at a later stage, have to publicly revise some of the data in its briefing paper Smoking in Vehicles. But it said Dr O'Reilly's use of the term manipulation was ‘detrimental to the honour and interest of the BMA'. The panel also said it found ‘unacceptable' a comparison made by Dr O'Reilly between ‘the statement of Dr Vivienne Nathanson and the dossier that allegedly led to the Iraq War'. The panel said in identifying himself as a member of BMA Wales Council he should have ‘conducted himself in accordance with the duties expected of a member'." ...

"'BMA members should be able to debate differences in opinion without being threatened or harangued for doing so,' he [O'Reilly] added. ‘There is a massive issue here about free speech.'"

The Rest of the Story

The false statistic that was included in a BMA briefing paper - the claim that level of secondhand smoke in cars are 23 times higher than in a smoky bar - was the subject of an in-depth exploration in an article published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal by two tobacco control scientists. In that article, the authors found no substantiation for the claim. While still supporting the policy of banning smoking in cars, they wrote: "We traced the evolution of this “myth turned fact” to emphasize that only credible evidence should be presented to advance policy. Solid evidence has been the foundation of the progress made in tobacco control in recent decades. The biggest danger of inaccurately interpreting research on smoking in cars for the sake of a snappy media sound bite is to lose favour with an overwhelmingly supportive public and to provide ammunition for opponents of tobacco control."

After the error was revealed, the BMA acknowledged the mistake and issued a retraction:

"Please note, there is an error in the BMA briefing paper: Smoking in vehicles. On page 4, in the 3rdparagraph, the following sentence is incorrect: “Further studies demonstrate that the concentration of toxins in a smoke-filled vehicle is 23 times greater than that of a smoky bar, even under realistic ventilation conditions”. THIS SENTENCE HAS BEEN REPLACED WITH: "Further studies demonstrate that the concentration of toxins in a smoke-filled vehicle could be up to 11 times greater than that of a smoky bar”. We apologise for this error."

On the radio show, Dr. O'Reilly apparently criticized the BMA for exaggerating the exposure levels to secondhand smoke in cars and compared the dissemination of inaccurate information to support its position with President George Bush's false claims that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction in order to engender public support for an invasion of that country. Dr. O'Reilly apparently did note that he was a member of the BMA, but did not claim to be representing the organization in his comments.

While the BMA might have valid grounds for suspending Dr. O'Reilly if he misrepresented himself as speaking in the name of the BMA, that does not appear to be the case. Instead, it appears that he simply noted that he was a BMA member. If that is indeed the case, then the BMA's action is quite troublesome because it means that they have essentially kicked him out of the organization for expressing an opinion with which they disagree.

Actually, they don't even disagree with the crux of the opinion - that the organization had disseminated false scientific information. But they apparently did not like the way he conveyed that information - comparing it to George Bush's false claims about the status of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

While I don't believe there was any need to make or validity to, a comparison of the "23 times greater" mistake with the lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that led to a war which killed thousands, I don't see how a medical association can expel a member simply for expressing his opinion, even if that opinion represents dissent from the official views of the organization.

This does appear to represent a violation of free speech and an attempt to quell dissent through a form of censorship.

Readers of the Rest of the Story will recognize that Dr. O'Reilly's experience in being expelled from the BMA is similar to my own experience. I was expelled from a number of tobacco control list-serves for expressing dissenting opinions. Interestingly, the opinions which most directly led to my expulsions were also criticisms of exaggerated facts about secondhand smoke.

It appears that secondhand smoke claims are a sacred sacrament in the tobacco control movement and that you absolutely can't criticize them. Doing so represents heresy and you must be ex-communicated from the movement on the spot.

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