Thursday, September 01, 2005

Another False Accusation? Health Groups May Have Wrongly Suggested that Poll was Funded by Tobacco Groups

It appears that several health groups in Wisconsin may have falsely alleged that a recent public opinion survey reported to show that Madison residents oppose smoke-free bars was funded by pro-tobacco groups.

According to an article on the web site, representatives from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, and American Lung Association criticized the results of an opposing survey of public opinion regarding smoking in bars among Madison residents, alleging that the poll was paid for by pro-tobacco groups; that poll was conducted by Chamberlain Research Consultants of Madison:

"Doeppers [from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids] and representatives of the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association and American Lung Association ripped the Chamberlain survey, calling it biased. The health groups said their poll, done by the Mellman Group of Washington, D.C., was fair. In a conference call, pollster Mark Mellman said his survey results were consistent with other polls done in U.S. cities where smoking bans have been enacted. They also alleged that Chamberlain survey oversampled smokers and was paid for by pro-tobacco organizations, a charge strongly denied by Chamberlain representatives."

In a letter to the editor in yesterday's Madison Capital Times, a spokesperson for Chamberlain Research Consultants stated: "Last Thursday, a coalition of local health organizations issued a press release, in conjunction with their own poll results, accusing Chamberlain Research Consultants of having conducted a slanted, biased poll for unnamed pro-tobacco organizations. We at Chamberlain wish to set the record straight. No outside group paid for the research either directly or indirectly."

The Chamberlain poll results were reported as showing that Madison residents oppose a ban on smoking in bars, while the competing poll funded by the health organizations was reported as showing the opposite.

The Rest of the Story

If it is indeed true that as reported in the Capital Times, the health groups accused the Chamberlain poll of being funded by pro-tobacco organizations, then I think that was an irresponsible and inappropriate accusation.

It seems quite clear that the poll was not funded by any organization, much less a pro-tobacco organization, and it certainly doesn't appear that the health groups had adequate evidence or documentation to substantiate such an accusation.

Even though the ultimate goal of promoting clean indoor air may be a good one, it doesn't justify making false or inadequately documented accusations in order to help achieve that goal.

Now there is always a possibility that the reporter got the story wrong and that the health groups made no such accusation, and I feel compelled to mention that possibility here. However, there seem to be at least two sources of information to suggest that such an accusation was made and it is hard to imagine where else the idea would have come from.

Before being criticized for "defending" Chamberlain Research Consultants or their survey, let me make two things clear:

1. Yes - Chamberlain Research Consultants did apparently receive funding from Philip Morris to conduct a 1998 public opinion survey regarding a proposed smoking ordinance. But that in no way proves or provides evidence that its 2005 survey was similarly funded by Philip Morris or by any other tobacco or "pro-tobacco" organization.

2. No - this post is not about the validity of the survey. It is simply about the ethics of making false or undocumented accusations in support of health goals.

The rest of the story suggests that health organizations in Wisconsin may have made false and inadequately documented allegations to support their campaign for a continuation of a smoke-free bar and restaurant policy in Madison, an action which I think is inappropriate and irresponsible for organizations in public health.

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