Friday, January 13, 2006

IN MY VIEW: Why I Think There is an Air of "McCarthyism" in the Tobacco Control Movement

Quite simply - because there is strong reason for anti-smoking advocates to believe that speaking out against the established dogma of the movement will have negative repercussions for them.

In fact, dissent is met with prompt, swift, and decisive action: not necessarily to counter the individual's arguments with a reasoned critique, but to discredit that individual through ad hominem attacks and to "blacklist" that individual. In my case, that "blacklist" took the form of expulsion from a tobacco policy listserve that I was a contributor to for many years as well as a number of public personal attacks and insults.

Take this example from just a few days ago:

I expressed what I felt was a quite reasonable opinion: that the claim that a smoking ban (in Helena or elsewhere) could decrease heart attacks by 40% is simply not plausible because even if all smoking disappeared overnight, heart attacks would drop by no more than 50% (based on what I think is solid epidemiologic data).

As a result of simply expressing my opinion, which apparently represents dissent from the established dogma of the movement, I was subjected to the worst possible attack a tobacco control advocate could possibly sustain. I was publicly accused of taking tobacco money.

And the form of the accusation certainly sounded like a McCarthyistic-like one: "Are you now or have you ever received any form of compensation from the Tobacco Industry?"

Do you see what I mean? I just don't think that I'm really making too much of a stretch here. If you substitute the phrase "been a member of the Communist party" for the phrase "received any form of compensation from the Tobacco Industry," then you might feel like you are sitting before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952.

And take another example:

After expressing my opinion that there was no evidence from statewide data on heart attack admissions to support the claim that smoking bans cause dramatic and immediate reductions in heart attacks, I was publicly accused by an anti-smoking advocate (in front of thousands of my fellow anti-smoking advocates) of intentionally lying.

So it completely makes sense that tobacco control scientists and practitioners would be reluctant to speak out in dissent against any of the dogma of the movement when there is solid evidence that if they do, they will be subjected to personal attack and possibly censorship.

The truth is that the "blacklisting" I am talking about is enough to ruin someone's career. Fortunately, it's not a problem for me because I've already established my credentials in the tobacco control movement. But if I were less established and less well-known, then this whole episode could have put an end to my career in tobacco control.

But the most telling aspect of this story is how completely benign (and reasonable) were the opinions that led to these actions. Essentially, my "blacklisting" by elements of the tobacco control movement was precipitated by having the gall to suggest that maybe, just maybe, there is not a 40% decrease in heart attacks within six months of a smoking ban, and that maybe, just maybe, it's not necessarily the best public policy to ban smoking everywhere outdoors, and maybe, just maybe, it isn't fair to discriminate against smokers in employment when what is being regulated is lawful, off-the-job behavior.

It's not like I was suggesting that the health effects of smoking have been overstated, or that secondhand smoke is not an established cause of lung cancer (and there are examples of scientists for whom there have been attempts to ruin their careers for this particular opinion), or that workplace smoking policies are not justified, or that tobacco marketing has no role in smoking initiation.

I'm not suggesting that "blacklisting" or censorship would be appropriate even if these were my opinions - I'm just trying to make clear how "benign" and "reasonable" my opinions were that led to this McCarthyistic-like response.

So it's no wonder that anti-smoking advocates are afraid to speak out when they question the wisdom of the prevailing dogma of the tobacco control movement. To do so could, based on observed experience, be harmful or even fatal to their careers.

Before I close, I want to make it clear that I'm not suggesting that any particular tobacco control leaders, individuals, or groups are McCarthyists, as one reader thought. I'm just suggesting that there is an air of McCarthyism afloat in the movement itself - this has nothing to do with any particular individuals. It's a general feeling, a general mentality in the movement that it is not safe to dissent with certain aspects of the dogma. I myself have certainly felt that and I've observed it in a number of different situations with other people as well. But I'm in no way suggesting that any individuals are involved. It's more of a general mentality in the movement.

I'll be honest - I myself had been brainwashed, until I took some time to reflect on myself and realized it. I used to buy on to the idea that anyone who said anything in opposition to our goals and opinions must be working for the tobacco industry or affiliated in some way, and therefore needed to be attacked and discredited and their efforts thwarted. That was what I was taught and what I accepted as the dogma of the movement.

I'm not suggesting it's any particular individuals' or even organizations' fault. I'm just saying that for some strange reason, this mentality is out there, and people must sense it because they seem afraid to speak out in dissent. And when they do, look what happens.

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