Monday, April 10, 2006

Anti-Smoking Groups Helping Philip Morris Execute Its Strategic Plan Without Having to Lift a Finger

In Philip Morris' anti-tobacco control industry strategic plan which I discussed yesterday in relation to the company's success in enticing the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and other national anti-smoking groups to support FDA tobacco legislation, it outlines a strategy by which the credibility of anti-tobacco groups would be undermined by attempting to degrade their positive image among policy makers and the public.

The key to this plan was holding "the leadership of the ATI [anti-tobacco industry] accountable for their statements...". Specifically, "whenever an anti-tobacco advocate makes an 'erroneous statement' in public, we want a 'truth squad' to call them on it."

In other words, Philip Morris was apparently concerned about possibly erroneous scientific claims that anti-tobacco advocates were making publicly and wanted to institute a public communications strategy to call out these erroneous claims to the media's and the public's attention in order to weaken the credibility of the tobacco control movement.

The example used in the Philip Morris memo was the claim that 3,000 kids start smoking every day. But it is clear that the "truth squad" would be an ongoing tactic that would expose any example of a fallacious scientific claim by the "anti-tobacco industry."

The Rest of the Story

In light of this strategic plan to undermine the credibility of the tobacco control movement, all I can say is that a large number of anti-smoking groups are now handing Philip Morris a golden opportunity to effectively carry out this strategy on a silver platter.

Yes - there's both silver and gold in it for Philip Morris in the recent actions of the tobacco control movement.

The silver is that the movement has handed Philip Morris an opportunity to execute its strategy by making the most outrageous and fallacious possible scientific claims: that 30 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure causes reduced coronary blood flow, hardening of the arteries, clogged coronary arteries, fatal arrhythmias, heart attacks, and death in otherwise healthy nonsmokers.

Let's face it: the 3,000 kids a day starting to smoke claim just didn't cut it in terms of convincing the media and policy makers that anti-smoking groups are full of crap. Because, at least from what I can tell, there are reasonable data to support this assertion. Of course it all depends on how exactly you define a smoker (whether you count someone who just tries a cigarette or someone who becomes a regular smoker, etc.). But the point is: there are reasonable scientific data upon which to base such a claim. Philip Morris was simply not going to win any major victories going to the media with this one.

In contrast, the 30 minutes of secondhand smoke is fatal claim is a gold mine. It is so utterly fallacious that it falls apart, even to a member of the media, on its face. You don't need to have a medical degree to appreciate the fact that it takes more than 30 minutes to develop hardening of the arteries and that there is no way that 30 minutes of secondhand smoke could present the same risk of a heart attack as a lifetime full of daily, repetitive active smoking.

Here, you are not talking about shades of interpretation. You are not talking about how you define a particular term. You are not even talking about an exaggeration or overstatement. Instead, you're talking about a complete misrepresentation of the scientific truth. It is not plausible, much less scientifically or medically possible, for the anti-smoking claims about the acute cardiovascular effects of secondhand smoke exposure to be true.

The gold is that it is not just one crazy advocate or group that is making these claims. In the original Philip Morris strategic plan, the idea was to try to discredit a small number of specific anti-smoking advocates, and to make the whole movement look like a scientific disgrace on account of the actions of a few overzealous individuals. But here, practically the entire movement is making these outrageous claims (or so it seems). I have already identified at least 28 anti-smoking groups that are publicly making these claims. And there apparently are quite a few more who I have yet to expose.

The overblown and inaccurate scientific claims that anti-smoking groups are presently making are a huge mistake not only because they are wrong and because it is irresponsible for public health groups to be disseminating complete misinformation, but also because it is a massive strategic blunder. Why hand Philip Morris a dream-come-true on a silver platter? Why make the most outrageous possible claims so that the tobacco companies can achieve their goal of diminishing the effectiveness of the tobacco control movement by weakening its credibility?

Why would you want to do this to yourself if your aim is to remain viable and effective as a movement? (I'll keep you in suspense - I'll be addressing this question in a subsequent post)

The rest of the story is that the tobacco control movement is on the verge of giving Philip Morris and the other tobacco companies a major hands-down victory. They have presented the tobacco companies with a gift - something that the companies could never have dreamed up in their wildest fantasies.

Can you imagine the tobacco executives sitting around the table discussing this?

"Let's go after them for the 3,000 kids a day claim."

"No, that's not outrageous enough. We need them to say something really outrageous so that we can nail them for it."

"Yeah - something really outrageous. What could that be?"

"How about something like secondhand smoke exposure causes heart attacks?"

"No, that's not outrageous enough. There's some evidence that chronic exposure may increase heart attack risk. We don't want to go there."

"Well what about acute exposure? What if they claimed that a very small amount of exposure - say 4-5 hours - caused fatal heart attacks in healthy nonsmokers?"

"Never. That's too absurd. Even the antis wouldn't make such a ridiculous claim. But maybe something like 4-5 years. Yea, that's it. In just 5 years of secondhand smoke exposure, a nonsmoker's risk of developing a heart attack is the same as that of a smoker."

When your opponent is aiming to undermine your effectiveness by destroying your credibility in the eyes of policy makers, the media, and the public, the last thing in the world that you want to do is to give them perfect ammunition to use against you by making completely outrageous scientific claims. But that's exactly what the tobacco control movement is now doing.

I'm trying to put a halt to it before it's too late. But so far I'm coming up completely empty. And it's a shame, because credibility is something that can not be regained easily, if ever.

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