Monday, May 15, 2006

IN MY VIEW: Anti-Smoking Movement in its Current State is Not Sustainable

Nothing is permanent. Including social movements. Like anything else, social movements come and go and they change over time.

In my view, the current anti-smoking movement is in an unsustainable state. Because it has transformed from a true grassroots social movement that was based in science and premised on the notion that it was presenting the truth and fighting the lies of the tobacco industry to a fanatical crusade in which the science doesn't matter and in which the truth is being distorted, leaving far less of a demarcation from the historical tactics of the tobacco industry, the foundations of the movement are unstable.

Ultimately, to sustain a social movement, you need to have the public's support. But when you are caught being dishonest, distorting the truth, exaggerating the science, and pursuing a fanatical agenda at almost all costs, then you are going to lose public credibility and the long-term sustainability of your movement comes into serious question.

I think the tobacco control movement is precisely at that point.

But there are several reasons why I'm afraid that we're going down the hill, rather than re-directing our course and propping ourselves back up.

First of all, it has become virtually impossible to express any dissent in the movement. It has become impossible to challenge the existing dogma of the movement. It is not possible to even suggest that claims being made by anti-smoking groups may not be correct. To do so results in being censored, attacked, ridiculed, disrespected, and blacklisted.

A movement that has lost its ability to maintain any checks and balances cannot be long sustained. There are no longer any mechanisms in place that help to keep the movement in check and to prevent it from spiraling out of control down the road to fanaticism.

Second of all, the movement has become divorced from the science. There is no longer a concern about scientific integrity or accuracy in the movement. The ends are all that matter and the science cannot be allowed to get in the way. If some group makes a claim that is a little far-fetched, it doesn't matter, because in the end, we're protecting the kids. If a group proposes an intervention to reduce smoking that goes too far, it doesn't matter either, because it's all about protecting the children. The means can no longer be challenged. The end is all that matters.

It is really the fact that the science is no longer important that concerns me the most personally. Possibly this is because I view myself first and foremost to be a scientist and to pride myself on scientific integrity. But also I think this is important because I think the science has been the mantelpiece for the entire movement for more than 50 years. Ever since the 1964 Surgeon General's report, it has really been the science of the effects of tobacco smoke that has served as the glue holding the whole movement together. Take away that glue and things start to fall apart.

Third of all, the truth is no longer the chief differentiation between us and the tobacco companies. To me, that was the one thing that always separated us from the industry. We had the truth on our side. Now, there have been just too many examples of anti-smoking groups misleading and deceiving (if not lying to) their constituents and the public to credibly claim that we have staked out the truth as our unifying value. The lines of separation between us and the tobacco industry in terms of the tactics we are using to accomplish our goal have been narrowed and the truth is no longer a virtue to which we, uniquely, can lay claim.

Fourth, we seem to have blinders on that are increasingly restricting our field of vision, so that we can see less and less of our world for what it is. We seem to be able to see only a narrow portion of that world - that which pertains to smoking and secondhand smoke. To address the sole problem which we see, we are increasingly willing to sacrifice other values we hold dear. The latest one to fall is the value of family - now, we are willing, apparently, to separate children from their parents in order to "protect" them from what we see as a hazard more dangerous than not being with their loving parents.

Essentially, what all of this adds up to is the disconnection of what is now the highly-paid, institutionalized anti-smoking crusade from the bounds of public health. We are on unfamiliar territory which is soon going to become hostile. The roots holding us firmly in place have been severed and we are now vulnerable to the winds that can change quickly from one direction to the other.

No - it hasn't happened yet. The wind is still blowing in a favorable direction. But without the roots holding us in place, all it is going to take is a change in direction of that wind to blow us away.

Scientific integrity and accuracy, the truth, a broad view of the public's health, an expansive appreciation of social values, and a willingness to consider alternate views were once the roots holding our movement in place. Without these roots, the tree cannot sustain itself for long.

Is the anti-smoking movement going to disappear? Of course not. But we are going to wake up in a couple of years and find that the movement is a shadow of its former self.

Now, for once, I see the urgency of passing as many smoke-free laws as we can, and as quickly as we can. We have a limited amount of time and a lot of people to cover. How to expedite the process? I have the solution. Two minutes. That's the ticket. Convince people that just 2 minutes of secondhand smoke is enough to clog coronary arteries and cause heart attacks. It's only 3 minutes less than the current anti-smoking claim, but those 3 minutes would make a world of difference in our efforts to promote these laws.

And I can tell you from experience - no one would challenge us. At least no group from within the movement.

Sure, it's a stretch. But we have lives to save and children to protect. This is no time to let the science get in our way.

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