Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Another Misleading Public Claim: This Time, a TobaccoScam Attempt to Discredit an Individual Who Opposes the Anti-Smoking View

Among the studies listed in a database of studies on the economic impact of restaurant smoking bans on the TobaccoScam website is a study by David W. Kuneman and Michael J. McFadden which concludes that bar and restaurant smoking bans lead to decreased bar and restaurant revenues (Kuneman, D.W., McFadden, M.J. Economic Losses Due to Smoking Bans in California and Other States).

According to the web site: "Kuneman is a retired research chemist who worked at Philip Morris."

After seeing this database entry, I assumed that Kuneman had been a tobacco research chemist working at Philip Morris and that the study was therefore essentially a tobacco industry study.

This conclusion was supported not only by the web site's claim that Kuneman is a retired research chemist who worked at Philip Morris, but also by the web site's introduction, which prefaces the database by stating: "Check out this section to see how the tobacco industry cooks the books behind the scenes. ... Watch how Big Tobacco operates behind political fronts from Anchorage, Alaska, to New York City — and could be doing so right now in your community."

On the alert for detecting the tobacco industry operating behind the scenes and using political fronts, I naturally assumed that David Kuneman was simply an example of such a tobacco front, having done tobacco research at Philip Morris and now writing to support the interests of Philip Morris.

My assumption was supported further by my findings on the Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation's (ANRF) Tobacco Industry Tracking Database site, where I found that David Kuneman appeared in no less than 7 different tobacco industry tracking documents.

Among the allegedly "damning" documents that showed up in the database was a letter to the editor that Kuneman wrote to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2000 in which he argued against smoking bans. While I didn't see any immediate relevance to the tobacco industry, the fact that he showed up prominently in the tobacco industry tracking database simply supported my assumption that Kuneman was simply a Big Tobacco front.

The Rest of the Story

The truth is that Kuneman worked as a research chemist not for Philip Morris, but for 7-Up, which was acquired by Philip Morris in 1978 and sold in 1986.

This truth was revealed in the article itself, which noted that Kuneman "worked for 6 years in the 1980s as a research chemist for Seven-Up and still draws a small pension from that work. At the time of his employment Seven-Up was owned by Philip Morris."

While it might not be technically inaccurate to state that someone who worked for 7-Up "worked for Philip Morris," it certainly seems misleading, and it was no doubt very misleading to me when I came across it. Because of the web site's claim that Kuneman worked for Philip Morris, I wasn't even aware that he actually worked for 7-Up until I did some substantial research into the issue.

The question that arises is why would the web site have changed the information from what Kuneman reported (that he worked for 7-Up, which was owned by Philip Morris) to say, instead, that he worked for Philip Morris.

Based on the context in which the misleading claim occurs, I can only infer that the reason for this change in the reporting of the truth was that the web site aims to try to discredit the study by making it appear to be simply a Philip Morris study - an example of how Big Tobacco "cooks the books."

But that's not the case at all. This is in no way a Philip Morris study. And the most relevant fact, that Kuneman didn't do tobacco research but studied the chemistry of a soft drink, I think gets distorted in the way that the web site reports it.

This story kind of reminds me of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights (ANR) justification for calling Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum a "former tobacco industry lawyer" when in fact McCallum never represented any tobacco company, but was a partner in a law firm that did. While ANR's contention that because McCallum, as a partner, derived income that originated from R.J. Reynolds, he was therefore a tobacco industry lawyer may be technically true under a rather wide interpretation of the term tobacco industry lawyer, the critical point is that the statement is grossly misleading, and in a very substantial way that affects the reputation of an individual.

Rather than simply correct the web site, which ANR has finally done, the organization, for weeks, refused to change the web site, and instead, attempted to defend its grossly misleading claim. Now that the web site has finally been corrected, it is clear that no damage is done by clarifying the truth. But a lot of damage could be done by misleading many members of the public, especially when you are talking about the ethical character of an individual.

Note that although ANR has now corrected its misleading statement, it still retains its unwarranted personal attack on McCallum, continuing to call "for an ethics complaint to be filed with the Federal Bar," when ANR itself now admits that it was misleading to call McCallum a tobacco industry lawyer.

Were there a "Public Health Bar," I think that a complaint would need to be filed with them about ANR's unethical tactics in trying to denigrate the reputation and malign the character of an individual who has never represented the tobacco industry in his life and who was cleared for service by the very Ethics Office at the Department where he works.

The bottom line is that I simply don't think that the good ends to which anti-smoking advocates are working justifies the use of unethical tactics. And to me, misleading the public, especially when that misleading is being done intentionally to try to discredit an individual, rather than simply as an oversight or careless mistake, is unethical for a public health organization.

Those who know my work will be aware that I have been a strong supporter of bar and restaurant smoking laws that provide a smoke-free environment for all workers. If anything, my personal interest should be in discrediting studies that report a negative economic impact of these laws. But my interest in promoting safe working environments for bar and restaurant workers does not extend so far that I am willing to use, or to condone the use of unethical tactics to accomplish that end.

I would also note that although at first, I thought that the idea of a tobacco industry tracking database was a good one, the ANRF database appears to be far more than simply a tobacco industry tracking database. In fact, it appears to contain documents related to anything that anyone writes against smoke-free legislation, even if there is no tobacco industry connection.

This, in itself, is I think improper. After all, the assumption, to the reader or user of the database (including myself) is that the documents all relate to the tobacco industry. So when David Kuneman showed up in the database with a letter to the editor, I naturally assumed that proved he was working for the industry.

Little did I realize that he was actually writing for himself and expressing his own sincere and heartfelt opinions. It took me hours of intensive research to expose and understand the truth. But obviously, most readers are not going to spend those hours to find out the truth. They are relying upon these anti-smoking websites for their information.

And therefore, I think it is irresponsible of these websites (and the organizations behind them) to provide misleading or irrelevant information in an apparent attempt to discredit anyone who says anything in opposition to the policies that these organizations support.

Keep in mind that I'm writing this as someone who supports smoke-free policies. There is no personal interest that I have in standing up to defend those who oppose such policies. The personal interest I have, however, is in the value of the truth, in the importance of respecting individuals and their opinions and not discrediting and attacking them simply because they disagree with one's own view, and most importantly, in upholding a responsibility to be as accurate as possible when speaking negatively about individuals on a public website.

Knowingly misleading the public in order to try to discredit an individual, even if one considers them an "enemy," is not upholding that responsiblity.

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