Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Prize Offered to First Anti-Smoking Group to Apologize for Misleading the Public

The Rest of the Story is today announcing that it will offer a $100 prize (a donation to the organization) to the first anti-smoking group to correct its fallacious claims about the acute cardiovascular effects of secondhand smoke (as pointed out previously on this blog) and apologize to the public for misleading them about this important issue.

Why do I feel this is so important that I'm willing to provide money to promote it? Because the tobacco control movement desperately needs an exemplary model to follow right now. We need a group - even just one - to step up to the plate and demonstrate for all of us the importance of scientific integrity and the seriousness with which we must take our responsibility to accurately communicate health information to the public.

We desperately need to reaffirm the value of the "truth" in the tobacco control movement, if we are going to proclaims things like "Nothing is More Important than the Truth" and have it mean anything.

If one group does this, I think it will set a model for all others to follow.

We no longer have the tobacco industry as a watchdog to keep us honest. So we need to develop an internal mechanism to accomplish this. Valuing scientific integrity is the only way that I can think of to make this happen. And I think groups can learn by example. So I do believe that if one group demonstrates such a model, others will follow.

Incidentally, is it not mildly ironic that the American Legacy Foundation - which today proclaims that "nothing is more important than the truth," has repeatedly refused (example 1; example 2) to tell the whole truth in citing research that it alleges provides confirmation that its "truth" campaign has led to a substantial decline in youth smoking.

In reporting the results of this research, Legacy has twice failed to disclose that the senior author of this research is in fact the President and CEO of the American Legacy Foundation, a conflict of interest that the public has the right to know about.

After all, how likely is it that the head of Legacy would publish a paper showing that Legacy's "truth" campaign is ineffective (a conclusion which I have argued is the actual finding of that research)?

This obviously introduces a potential bias into the analysis, interpretation, and reporting of the research, one which is substantial enough so that I think the public has the right to know about it and the Legacy Foundation has a responsibility to disclose it. Note that the conflict of interest is disclosed in the actual paper itself. What I'm talking about is the reporting of that research in press releases on Legacy's web site.

Also, I'm not suggesting that there is any wrongdoing in having a conflict of interest such as this. It's quite common in medical and public health research, and it's not inappropriate. What is important, however, is that the conflict be disclosed in all reporting of the research. That is a standard ethical requirement which most universities, including my own Boston University Medical Center Conflict of Interest Advisory Committee (of which I am a member), adhere to. Whether this requirement is interpreted as applying to the reporting of results on a web site, as opposed to in a scientific form, is not clear. However, my opinion is that the conflict should be disclosed in any public reporting of the study results, and especially when the reporting of those results is for the specific purpose of self-promotion, as it was in the case of Legacy.

As a movement which is based more than anything on the principle of the truth and the premise that we are truthful and the tobacco industry has not been, I agree that there is nothing more important than being truthful - and this certainly holds for our public communications and our scientific and health claims.

Protecting kids does not justify not being truthful. The ends of protecting the public's health does not justify the means of being misleading or inaccurate in our communications in order to achieve that goal.

A number of anti-smoking groups have recently been made aware of their inaccurate statements. Hopefully, they will recognize and admit their error, correct it, and apologize to the public for providing them with this false information.

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