Friday, May 19, 2006

IN MY VIEW: Giving the Tobacco Industry Ammunition - Why in the World are We Doing This?

I'm going to come clean about something as this eventful week draws to a close.

For many years, the tobacco industry and some smokers' rights groups have made statements or implications about the anti-smoking movement that I felt were untrue. We have been called anti-smoking zealots and fanatics. We have been accused of distorting the science or misleading people about the facts in order to promote our agenda. We have been framed as being on a crusade, rather than being reasonable public health practitioners. We have been accused of being an "anti-smoker" movement rather than an "anti-smoking" movement.

And for years, I thought all this was complete crap.

Every time I testified in a tobacco trial, the defense would always ask me questions in my depositions that were trying to elicit a response that I am an anti-smoker or that I was a zealot or fanatic. I could see where they were going with that line of reasoning. The idea was to paint me not as a relatively unbiased scientist, but as a highly biased zealot who put the cause above the science and was ultimately out to get smokers.

While this was done on an individual level, I believe that the tobacco industry also engaged in an effort on a larger scale, directed at the movement as a whole, in which they tried to portray us as fanatics who were highly biased and unable to objectively examine or present the science.

In fact, a tobacco industry document outlines a plan to try to undermine the tobacco control movement and to harm its reputation and credibility by painting the movement as a bunch of intolerant prohibitionists:

"Our third strategy focuses on weakening the credibility of the ATI [anti-tobacco industry]. We want to 1) Hold the leadership of the ATI accountable for their statements and identify those anti-tobacco activists who either by words or actions are clearly pushing for tobacco prohibition. ...We will work with PM-USA Communications to implement a plan to: 1) Challenge the credibility of the ATI. ... whenever an anti-tobacco advocate makes an 'erroneous statement' in public, we want a 'truth squad' to call them on it."

The Rest of the Story

If the tobacco industry is looking for erroneous statements that anti-smoking groups are making, then they are going to have a field day.

Because we have provided them with innumerable examples of erroneous scientific claims as well as statements and actions that demonstrate zealotry, fanaticism, and intolerance. This blog alone has documented a large number of these claims, statements, and actions.

But we continue to give the companies even more ammunition by responding to the questioning of the science and of the justification behind our agenda by completely shunning any consideration of the science or the public policy issues and instead focusing efforts on trying to discredit the messenger and censor the expression of his opinions in a way that makes us look like we are intolerant of any dissenting viewpoint.

We are calling on policies that would result in children being taken away from their parents because of smoking in the home, preclude smokers from employment, and ban smoking virtually everywhere because we don't want our kids to be exposed to these social pariahs. We are using fallacious scientific claims to support our agenda, we are distorting the science, and we are widely misleading the public.

In short, we are doing precisely what the tobacco industry accused us of doing for so many years. We are essentially making what I considered at the time to be false accusations come true, at least to some degree.

Why are we doing this? Why would we give the tobacco companies the very ammunition that they need to discredit us, harm our reputation, destroy our credibility, and ultimately, undermine our efforts?

Why are we providing them with the precise material they need to execute their strategic plan which they outlined in 1997?

If the past week has shown me anything, it is that we are so intolerant of dissenting viewpoints, even if they are based on solid scientific grounds, that we are unwilling to even look at the arguments being made. Immediate attack on the dissenter is the order of the day. And we turn the tables, accusing the dissenter of being the one who has not looked at, and is unwilling to look at, the scientific data.

To me, that's a sign of zealotry and fanaticism. It's a sign that the agenda is more important than the science. It's a sign that perhaps this is more of a crusade than a true science- and public health-based movement.

In other words, what is becoming evident to me is that to some degree, the tobacco companies were right. Whether we like it or not, we're proving them to be right by demonstrating precisely what they said about us.

Of course I'm not arguing that everything they said about us was true. But the statements, claims, and actions of anti-smoking groups over the past weeks and months has provided strong ammunition for the tobacco companies that they could, if they wish, use to help discredit the movement and harm our credibility and reputation.

Although I thought it was a bunch of crap at the time, I don't think it's crap now. Unfortunately, we're proving them to be right. And that means we're doing something very wrong.

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