Tuesday, July 18, 2006

IN MY VIEW: Deterioration of Scientific Quality of Anti-Smoking Groups' Communications Coincides with Tobacco Industry Relinquishing its Watchdog Role

In reviewing the time course of the numerous fallacious health claims being made by anti-smoking groups, I have come to the conclusion that the time course of the deterioration of the quality of our scientific communications coincides perfectly with the relinquishing by the tobacco companies of their role in monitoring and holding us accountable for our statements about the health hazards of smoking and secondhand smoke.

It seems to me that a major change occurred in the tobacco industry at the start of this century. Between 2000 and 2002, the tobacco companies began to acknowledge, for the first time, that smoking is a cause of disease. Over the course of about a two-year period (from my recollection), the tobacco company websites progressed from no acknowledgment of the hazards of smoking to stating that public health authorities believe that smoking is harmful, to stating that smoking is harmful.

Coincident with this change was the implementation of the Master Settlement Agreement, by which the Tobacco Institute and Council for Tobacco Research were disbanded and the tobacco companies agreed to discontinue lobbying against certain types of public policies.

It seems to me that in concert with these two major events, there was some sort of decision on the part of the tobacco companies to discontinue their efforts to monitor and counteract anti-smoking groups' communications by bringing to task any group that made inaccurate statements. The companies appear to me to have basically relinquished that watchdog role that they had previously played.

It is the relinquishing of the tobacco companies' watchdog role that coincides perfectly with the appearance of misleading, inaccurate, and completely fallacious health claims by anti-smoking groups.

Apparently, the knowledge that the tobacco industry was watching us was enough to ensure that we were extremely careful in our public communications. Any errors, even small ones, might come back to haunt us because the tobacco companies might pick up on them and call us on it.

Now, however, it is quite clear that nobody is going to call our bluff. We can pretty much say anything that we want and get away with it. The only thing stopping us is our own integrity and our own conscience. There are basically no external limits to the extent we can go in communicating secondhand smoke hazards to the public. And we, as a movement, certainly are not imposing any internal limits.

This impression is also informed by my own experiences in tobacco control. Prior to about 2001 or so, I observed an extreme amount of care in anti-smoking groups preparing statements to be issued to the public. We were very careful to document and substantiated all of our health claims. It was almost as if we were writing a scientific paper and had to carefully reference every point we made. At times, I even thought that the perceived need to document everything was exaggerated. But there was this constant fear that the tobacco industry was watching and that if you went beyond the science, they were going to catch you and call you on it.

These days, it seems to me as if it's more of a contest to see what we can get away with. What is the most sensational claim we can make for which we can provide some level of documentation, even if that documentation doesn't really directly support the claim? We don't have to worry about the tobacco industry calling us on it anymore, so however we can best support our agenda, the better, regardless of the actual scientific validity. I have observed a drastic decline in the number of phone calls I receive asking me to review scientific statements that groups would like to make, but want to get an expert opinion first, before going public.

Now, as long as one other group or individual makes a claim, other groups in the movement seem perfectly willing to repeat it, regardless of its validity. All it takes is for one person or one group to make the most absurd claim that is perceived as propelling anti-smoking efforts and that statement - probably the exact language - will appear in the materials of anti-smoking groups around the country.

And there is no mechanism to check the spread of these claims. There is no way to reign in the groups in their zeal to deliver sensational statements about the hazards of secondhand smoke or the benefits of smoking bans to the public.

This, by the way, is why my own research is quickly becoming obsolete. What is the importance of my researching and carefully documenting the health hazards of secondhand smoke exposure, the levels of exposure among various groups, and the effects of smoke-free policies, if anti-smoking groups are going to go around claiming that people are going to have heart attacks at night if they eat at a restaurant that allows smoking for dinner and that smoking bans will reduce heart attacks by 40%?

The Rest of the Story

In my opinion, we need a strong tobacco industry in order to keep us honest and to serve as a watchdog to ensure that our scientific communications to the public are accurate.

As funny and ironic as that sounds, I believe it is true. At least based on my observations.

The key to our scientific accuracy is apparently having a tobacco industry that is closely watching us and calling us on mis-statements when we make them. That fear has now gone and it has basically turned into a free-for-all.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that all anti-smoking groups, or even a large proportion of them, are spreading misinformation. However, a large enough number of them are doing so such that the tobacco control movement's image, reputation, and credibility, as a whole, is tarnished. And since none of the others are apparently willing to express displeasure at the movement being tainted by these absurd public claims, we are all essentially going along with this, even though many of us know that it is not right.

In a strange way, perhaps relinquishing their watchdog role was the most brilliant thing that the tobacco companies could have done. By letting the anti-smoking groups loose, perhaps they knew that it was only a matter of time before these groups starting making such ridiculous claims that their credibility would eventually be shot.

Sometimes, I guess the best strategy is to let the opponent do damage, rather than preventing them from doing damage. In the long run, the greatest damage they do might be to themselves.

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