Monday, July 24, 2006

Op-Ed by Rest of the Story Author Brings Surgeon General's Misrepresentation of Science to Public Attention

An op-ed column of mine published in Sunday's St. Paul Pioneer Press brings to public attention the Surgeon General's misrepresentation of the science in claiming that brief exposure to secondhand smoke causes heart disease and lung cancer.

In the piece, I argue that the Surgeon General's press release accompanying the landmark report on the effects of 'involuntary smoking' misrepresented the science in the report itself by claiming that: "Even brief exposure to secondhand smoke has immediate adverse effects on the cardiovascular system and increases risk for heart disease and lung cancer, the report says."

I argue that the report says no such thing and that such a claim is in fact scientifically implausible, because it takes more than just a brief exposure even for active smokers to develop heart disease or lung cancer. Moreover, there is simply no evidence that a brief exposure causes heart disease or lung cancer.

The crux of my argument is that: "While it's accurate to state that brief exposure to secondhand smoke has immediate adverse effects on the cardiovascular system (this is well documented in the report), to jump from these acute and transient physiologic changes in artery elasticity, coronary lining cell function, lipid metabolism, and platelet activity to the development of chronic arterial disease is more than just a leap of faith: it's a misrepresentation of the scientific evidence."

I argue: "It seems to me the truth is enough. We don't need to exaggerate or misrepresent the science in order to promote smoke-free environments. It's enough to just stick to the scientific facts. In my view, the misrepresentation of the findings of the report highlights an increasing tendency among tobacco control practitioners to exaggerate the science in order to promote our cause. I think we are risking losing credibility with the public, something which will hurt the public health cause far more than any transient gains to be obtained by scaring people about these hazards."

And I conclude: "As public health practitioners, it's too important for us to retain public trust to unduly scare people with inaccurate health claims. We should leave blowing smoke to the tobacco companies."

The Rest of the Story

The rest of the story has now been told. It is up to the public to decide whether the Surgeon General as well as a host of anti-smoking groups have been misleading them by misrepresenting the science of the acute cardiovascular health effects of secondhand smoke and whether these groups are to be trusted in the future to make accurate health claims.

Most importantly, it is up to the tobacco control groups themselves to decide how to respond. Do they correct the inaccurate and misleading misrepresentations of the science and apologize to the public for not communicating the truth, or do they now decide to intentionally deceive the public about the nature of the hazards of secondhand smoke?

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