Monday, March 13, 2006

What Are They Waiting For? Tobacco Companies Should Claim that Smoking Presents No More Risk of Heart Attacks than Brief Secondhand Smoke Exposure

If I were working for a tobacco company, I would recommend to the public relations department that they immediately put out some sort of communication to smokers and to the public indicating that smoking poses no more serious risk of a heart attack than a transient (30 minute) exposure to drifting tobacco smoke (secondhand smoke).

You may ask the question - how could I recommend putting out such an obviously false health claim?

Well I wouldn't exactly put it out in a way that implies that my company were making such a claim. What I would say is that "according to" a prominent anti-smoking group, smoking poses no more risk of a heart attack than 30 minutes of secondhand smoke.

After all, that's exactly what Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) claims in a statement on its website, a re-emphasized statement on its web site, and in a communication sent to all members of the New Hampshire House of Representatives: "breathing drifting tobacco smoke for as little as 30 minutes ( less than the time one might be exposed outdoors on a beach, sitting on a park bench, listening to a concert in a park, etc.) can raise a nonsmoker’s risk of suffering a fatal heart attack to that of a smoker."

And another anti-smoking group - SmokeFreeOhio - actually tops ASH. They claim that not 30, but just 20 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure in a nonsmoker reduces "the ability of the heart to pump" and increases the "risk of a heart attack." So if anything, the 30 minutes is a conservative estimate.

So as a tobacco company, you don't even have to go out on a limb in proclaiming that a smoker's risk of a heart attack is no more than that of a nonsmoker's. You simply have to cite the health claims that the anti-smoking movement is making.

What a tremendous public relations coup this would be. Imagine if you could convince smokers and the general public that smoking was not a serious cardiovascular risk after all. Imagine if you could convince the public that smoking actually puts people at no more risk of a heart attack than breathing in drifting tobacco smoke or 20 or 30 minutes.

You would be able to completely undermine the public's appreciation of the severe hazards of smoking, to be taken seriously in doing so, and to reverse the effects of years of public education about the health hazards of smoking.

It seems like a dream come true.

The Rest of the Story

I think it may be interesting and perhaps informative to consider the question of why the tobacco companies have not jumped on this amazing opportunity. They have nothing to lose because they wouldn't be making any health claim themselves. They would simply be pointing the public to claims that "anti-smoking authorities" have made. This is completely in line with what the companies presently do on their web sites.

They could even just provide direct quotes from Action on Smoking and Health and SmokeFreeOhio, without adding any editorial comment that might be construed as the company itself making a claim of any kind. But the damage would be done. It would help to completely undermine the public's understanding of the cardiovascular health risks of smoking.

This is an incredible public relations opportunity that has kindly been provided by the anti-smoking movement.

To make it even more appealing, not only have these public statements been made by several anti-smoking groups, but they have not been contested by a single anti-smoking group or advocate, other than myself (and I'm just a tobacco stooge anyway). In fact, they have been publicly defended by a number of advocates and groups. Thus, the companies can argue that they had no reason to believe that there was any doubt about the claims that these anti-smoking groups made.

It may seem strange, but the reason I think the tobacco companies will not use such a tactic is that they know the claim would be completely fallacious.

While the companies have, in the past, used deceptive and misleading statements, they generally have not made direct factual misrepresentations. And more recently, it appears to me that they have become more careful about even possibly misleading the public in terms of making deceptive health claims. This is in fact the reason why I believe that Philip Morris and perhaps other companies are reticent to market reduced exposure products without an FDA stamp of approval for these products.

So the fact is that tobacco companies will not take advantage of this opportunity simply because they themselves view the claim as being completely fallacious. They know that it is completely fallacious.

Which puts us in the all too ironic situation (a little too ironic), with respect to this particular matter, of the tobacco companies being more concerned about scientific integrity than the tobacco control movement.

Because that's what it really comes down to. The tobacco companies are not making and will not make a claim that smokers' risk of a heart attack is equivalent to that of a nonsmoker exposed to drifting tobacco smoke. But anti-smoking groups are making and apparently will continue to make the claim that a smokers' risk of a heart attack is the same as that of a nonsmoker exposed to 30 minutes of drifting tobacco smoke.

So the anti-smoking movement is willing to make a completely fallacious claim to advance its agenda, while the tobacco industry is not willing to make the same fallacious claim to advance its agenda.

I never thought it would come to this, but the rest of the story is difficult to deny. It's happening before my eyes. I'm just glad that my eyes are open, and that I'm able to write about what I'm seeing. Because maybe this harsh truth will finally hit the anti-smoking groups over the head hard enough to make them see what is going on. And to realize that they are on the verge of completely losing all semblance of public credibility.

When the tobacco companies are a bit more concerned about scientific integrity than you are, it should be a wake-up call telling you that something needs to change. And this isn't just a wake-up call, it's a thunderous, shrieking, earsplitting alarm.

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