Wednesday, March 01, 2006

IN MY VIEW: Why Scientific Accuracy is Important for Tobacco Control Organizations

I never thought I would be writing a post entitled "Why Scientific Accuracy is Important for Tobacco Control Organizations." But it seems necessary because it is clear to me that many anti-smoking organizations and advocates do not seem to appreciate the importance of scientific accuracy when it comes to communications from tobacco control groups; they only seem to understand its importance when it comes to communications from the tobacco companies.

It has become clear to me that there is a double standard when it comes to scientific claims: The tobacco industry, if it makes any inaccurate claims, even if they amount to simply misleading people by framing information in a certain way rather than presenting a gross distortion of the facts, represents serious wrongdoing. But if anti-smoking groups make claims that are inaccurate or misleading, it is no big deal. After all, the tobacco companies produce products which kill people, while we are working for a noble goal.

This is the reasoning that I see pervading the tobacco control movement, and it is certainly the prevailing "wisdom" in response to my questioning of ASH's fallacious claim that 30 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure can cause a fatal heart attack in an otherwise healthy nonsmoker.

So I feel it is, unfortunately, necessary for me to explain why I think that ASH's fallacious claim, and other misleading claims that other anti-smoking groups have made, are a serious problem that deserves undiverted attention by the tobacco control community.

The Rest of the Story

The tobacco control movement basically rests upon a pedestal of honesty, truth, and scientific integrity, credibility, and accuracy. That is precisely what separates us from the past actions of the tobacco companies and which makes us believable, trustworthy, and effective in communicating our messages to the public.

Most of what we do in tobacco control rests upon the contention that the tobacco companies have been dishonest, misleading, and scientifically inaccurate or unscrupulous. To be sure, the bulk of the Department of Justice lawsuit against the companies rests upon this proposition, as do most of the major lawsuits that have been brought against the companies (including the Engle and Price cases, which resulted in the largest verdicts awarded against the companies).

Our effectiveness as public health advocates rests squarely on our ability to convince policy makers and the public that while tobacco companies have misled the public, we are the purveyors of truth. We have science on our side, we don't misrepresent the science, we don't engage in misleading and inaccurate public communication and therefore, we are the ones to be trusted and relied upon in formulating public policy on tobacco issues.

As I pointed out in a previous post, in Robert Greene and Joost Elffers "The 48 Laws of Power," law #5 is "So Much Depends on Reputation -- Guard It With Your Life."

Greene and Elffers argue that "reputation is the cornerstone of power." It "inevitably precedes you, and if it inspires respect, a lot of your work is done for you before you arrive on the scene, or utter a single word." It gives you "a degree of control over how the world judges you -- a powerful position to be in." "Reputation has a power like magic: with one stroke of its wand, it can double your strength." Therefore, "reputation is a treasure to be carefully collected and hoarded."

However, "one false slip, one awkward or sudden change in your appearance, can prove disastrous." And once holes have been opened in your reputation, your enemies can "stand aside" and "let public opinion hang" you.

I think the anti-smoking movement now stands at the verge of a crisis of credibility. Our reputation is on the line. I simply don't think we can tolerate having prominent anti-smoking organizations going around and publicly spreading completely fallacious and misleading scientific information and not lose our reputation as a movement of scientific accuracy, honesty scientific integrity, honesty, and truth.

It only takes one major slip, as Greene and Elffers suggest, before we are viewed as being just as unscrupulous or at least, careless as the "other side," and our reputation may be permanently tarnished. And I think that ASH's ridiculous and false on its face claim could qualify as being that major slip.

I therefore do not view this as being merely a minor problem, a slight stretching of the science that is based on hard data, or even a mistake that is unfortunate but was committed for a good goal and therefore can be overlooked.

I don't think it can be overlooked, and in fact, I think it should be the very focus of attention of the entire tobacco control community for some time. Precisely, for the amount of time that it takes to wake up the tobacco control community and allow them to realize that we are quickly deteriorating into organizations that are little better in our scientific accuracy than we accuse the tobacco companies of being.

I think it is important to recognize that most of our claims upon which our movement is based are not related to outright lies that the tobacco industry has told, but instead, to misleading distortions of the scientific truth. For example, the entire Price lawsuit and many others like it rely upon the contention that the marketing of "low-tar" cigarettes is fraudulent because it makes a fraudulent health claim.

But clearly, this is not a direct factual misrepresentation of the truth. The cigarettes are indeed "low-tar" in the sense that they do in fact deliver lower tar yields using a method prescribed by the federal government. The wrongdoing is allegedly in the misleading nature of these communications, based on the contention that the term "low-tar" and its associated advertising deceives and misleads people into thinking that these cigarettes will be healthier or safer than other brands.

We are talking not about factual scientific inaccuracies, but about misleading and deceptive communications about health issues.

In some ways, what ASH has done, in my opinion, is worse than simply a misleading or deceptive communication because in my view, its statement is simply false. I view it as a scientific inaccuracy. This should make it all the more concerning and alarming to the tobacco control community.

But despite all of these arguments, none of them represent the most important reason why I think scientific inaccuracy is important for tobacco control organizations. The most important reason is that scientific accuracy is an important value in and of itself.

This point seems to be lost among many tobacco control organizations. We should be scientifically accurate in our communications and claims because it's the right thing to do.

And finally, I view the accurate communication of scientific information to be part of the job of a public health practitioner. We should, first and foremost, be scientifically accurate in our communications and claims because that is our job.

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