Thursday, April 27, 2006

Anti-Smoking Groups Widely Giving False Testimony in Support of Smoking Bans; Groups Even Being Instructed to Give Testimony that is Inaccurate

Anti-smoking groups have been quite widely presenting false testimony in support of smoking bans. The falsehood relates to misrepresentation of the science regarding the acute cardiovascular effects of secondhand smoke.

In a number of city council or state legislative hearings around the country, anti-smoking groups have claimed that 30 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure increases the risk of heart disease: coronary artery blood clots and heart attacks or hardening of the arteries.

The truth, however, is that a person cannot develop hardening of the arteries in just 30 minutes and a person without severe existing coronary artery disease is at no risk of coronary artery blood clots or a heart attack from a 30-minute exposure to secondhand smoke.

For example, according to testimony given in support of a workplace smoking ban by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene: "Just 30 minutes of exposure changes the way your blood clots and your blood vessels react in a way that increases the risk of heart disease."

According to testimony given in support of a statewide workplace smoking ban by the Tobacco Prevention and Control division of the North Dakota Department of Health: "Exposure to secondhand smoke for as little as 30 minutes can increase the formation of blood clots and restrict flow to the heart, causing a heart attack."

According to testimony given by the American Heart Association in support of a proposed smoke-free restaurant ordinance in Rochester, Minnesota: "When you leave a restaurant after dining...[tobacco smoke has] made your blood 'stickier' promoting blood clots."

The Minnesota Medical Association went so far as to include this fallacious health claim in its "Testimony Talking Points," which instructs anti-smoking advocates to testify that: "even brief exposure to secondhand smoke - —just 30 minutes - —increases hardening of the arteries, contributing to coronary heart disease."

The Rest of the Story

It is disturbing to me that inaccurate testimony is being given by anti-smoking groups in an effort to promote smoking bans. Although I have made it clear that I support most of these policies, I do not support the use of false scientific testimony to promote policy, even if the policy would end up having a beneficial public health effect.

The statement that 30 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure increases your risk of heart disease is false. You cannot develop atherosclerosis in just 30 minutes. And there is no evidence that a 30-minute exposure to secondhand smoke increases the risk of coronary artery clotting or heart attacks in anyone other than someone with severe existing coronary artery disease (and even in that case, the conclusion is purely speculative).

What is particularly disturbing here is that not only are anti-smoking groups widely giving false testimony to support smoking bans, but at least one group is actually instructing anti-smoking advocates to include these inaccurate health claims in their testimony in support of smoking bans.

The Minnesota Medical Association has included in its instructions to advocates that they should testify (quite fallaciously) that even 30 minutes of secondhand smoke can cause hardening of the arteries and contribute to coronary heart disease. And the Minnesota Medical Association should know better since these are physicians who presumably are aware of the fact that one cannot develop atherosclerosis in just 30 minutes.

As I am gradually revealing, the scope of this problem is much larger than I originally imagined. At first, I thought this was simply a single fanatical anti-smoking group which was spreading inaccurate information in order to scare policy makers into banning smoking outdoors. Then I thought this was simply two groups that were fighting it out to see which could come up with the more absurd claim.

Now, it is clear that there are well over 60 anti-smoking groups making these fallacious claims, that the false information is being used to promote smoking bans, that anti-smoking officials are giving false testimony at smoking ban hearings, and that at least one group is actually instructing anti-smoking advocates to present what amounts to inaccurate and misleading testimony to promote smoke-free laws.

I'm not claiming here that any anti-smoking group or groups are intentionally deceiving the public or lying, although it is getting more and more difficult for me to stand by that disclaimer. Nevertheless, what I am exposing here is not necessarily any wrongdoing on any group's part or any intentional deception. What it is, however, is a severe flaw in the tobacco control movement that must be fixed immediately.

As we stand here right now, the movement is incapable of disseminating solid science and its credibility is therefore in severe question. I'm not casting blame on any particular groups - I'm just stating that this has happened, for whatever reason. For now, the reason doesn't matter. What matters most urgently is that the problem is fixed.

Ultimately, I do think we need to get to the bottom of this and determine how such a fiasco could have occurred. The reasons for the destruction of the gatekeeping mechanism that previously guarded the scientific integrity of the movement need to be identified, so that the problem can be fixed.

But first, the anti-smoking movement needs to admit that there is a problem. So far, not a single anti-smoking group in the United States seems to care. And that doesn't bode well for the viability of the tobacco control movement in this country.

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