Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Credibility of Helena/Pueblo Claims is Not Just a Theoretical Concern; Anti-Smoking Groups are Spewing Out this Propaganda Widely

I want to devote this post to emphasizing that my concern over the credibility of the Helena/Pueblo claims that smoking bans immediately and drastically reduce heart attacks by as much as 40% is not just a theoretical one regarding the science.

It is, instead, a practical concern that is made a critical one because this claim is being widely made by anti-smoking groups and advocates in national media campaigns as well as smoking ban battles throughout the country.

The point is: this is not a situation where we are making a lot out of a claim that simply appears in an isolated scientific paper or an isolated press release. We are dealing with a claim that has penetrated the tobacco control movement, and is becoming widely familiar among the media and the public.

The Rest of the Story

Here, therefore, is just a sample of public claims being made by public health and anti-smoking groups regarding the Helena and Pueblo studies:
  • A Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids press release states: "New Study Confirms Smoke-Free Laws Reduce Heart Attacks"
  • A Pueblo City-County Health Department press release states: "The study validates previous scientific evidence that indoor smoke-free laws can dramatically reduce heart attacks and means that 108 fewer people had heart attacks in Pueblo in an 18-month period."
  • An American Cancer Society press release quoted its CEO as stating about the Helena study: "There has never been better evidence in support of clean indoor air laws."”
  • A UCSF press release stated: "In the first study of its kind, researchers have found that the number of heart attack victims admitted to a regional hospital dropped by nearly 60 percent during the first six months that a smoke-free ordinance was in effect in the area. The study's authors attribute much of the sharp decline in acute myocardial infarctions (AMI) to a near-elimination of the rapid and harmful effects of secondhand smoke on blood platelets and the arteries that supply blood to the heart."
  • Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights not only states that the Helena study demonstrates the dramatic and immediate effects of smoking bans but also casts any criticism of the study as being hogwash: "The Helena Heart Study demonstrates that even a little exposure to secondhand smoke can be deadly. The study is powerful, and demonstrated the urgent need for smokefree laws to protect the public. So it comes as no surprise that the Helena Heart study has unfairly come under attack by the opposition. The opposition has used unsubstantiated claims to argue the validity of this study. These claims are hogwash."
  • The Minnesota chapter of the American Heart Association not only touts the Helena study as being definitive, but accuses those who argue that the small numbers in the study make its results suspect as being "painfully uneducated" and urges the public to "believe the facts, not the fears": "Recently, opposition to the Freedom to Breathe Act in Minnesota has undertaken a concerned effort in legislative committees, meetings with legislators, and in public blogs to undermine the results of this landmark study. In particular, they have reported that the number of heart attacks in Helena dropped from seven to four, which is a statistically insignificant number...The opposition is very mistaken ... This statement is painfully uneducated. According to even the most conservative statistical analysis, there are less than five chances in 100 that the drop in heart attacks in Helena was a random drop."
  • A Smoke Free Wisconsin brief argues, based on the Helena study, that: "Passing laws that have been proven to reduce the incidence of heart attacks will not only save lives, but will significantly reduce health care costs."
  • According to the Smoke-Free Environments Law Project, the Helena study showed "that Helena, Montana smoke-free law had direct effect on decline in heart attack rate."
  • A Jefferson County (Colorado) tobacco program press release boasted: "Pueblo Heart Study Confirms Smoke-free Laws Produce Immediate Reductions in Heart Attacks."
  • A Larimer County (Colorado) health department press release more modestly claimed: "New Study Suggests Smoke-free Indoor Air Laws Reduce Heart Attacks."
  • A SmokeFreeOhio web page states: "A study of emergency room patients in Helena, Montana, found that their 100% Clean Indoor Air Law reduced the city'’s rate of heart attacks by 40%."
It is quite clear, then, that the Helena/Pueblo claim, which is premature, if not invalid and implausible, has penetrated the tobacco control movement to a great extent, such that it is being widely bandied about in the effort to promote smoke-free legislation.

This is not only a disservice to the public, but I feel it greatly threatens the credibility of the entire movement.

The rest of the story demonstrates that this is not simply an academic issue. It is one that speaks to the integrity of the tobacco control movement and its responsibility to uphold the truth and the strength and quality of the scientific claims that it makes.

The movement's response to this problem will determine, to a large extent, its future credibility, and therefore, its future.

No comments: