Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Surgeon General's Statements Leading to Inaccurate Public Communications About Relative Harms of Smoking and Secondhand Smoke

Apparently in response to the way in which the Surgeon General's report on involuntary smoking was publicized, newspapers around the world are beginning to convey misleading and inaccurate information to the public about the relative harms of smoking compared to secondhand smoke - creating misperceptions that are likely to undermine the public's knowledge of the dangers of smoking.

This past Sunday, a Philipines newspaper (Sun.Star Baguio) published a column entitled "Secondhand smoke: As harmful as smoking itself."

The article highlights the Surgeon General's warning that no level of secondhand smoke is safe, in a way which appears to be consistent with the headline's proclamation that secondhand smoke is just as harmful as active smoking.

The article itself seems to be a reasonably accurate portrayal of the information contained in the Surgeon General's report. The headline, however, follows the sensationalistic lead set by the Surgeon General in misrepresenting the findings of his own report.

The Rest of the Story

This is precisely why it is so important for public health groups to accurately communicate health information to the media. The media are likely to sensationalize what we say to begin with - if we sensationalize it before it even gets to the media, the results are going to be a completely inaccurate communication of important information.

Here, the Surgeon General's sensationalistic communication about his own report, in which he apparently misrepresented its findings in order to try to heighten the emotional appeal of the science, has resulted in thousands of people being misled about the relative hazards of smoking compared to secondhand smoke.

If people actually believe that smoking is no more harmful than being exposed to drifting tobacco smoke, then we are certainly going to see a waning of the public's appreciation of the severity of smoking's risks to health. And research has documented that this change in the public's appreciation of the hazards of smoking will result in an increase in smoking.

In other words, the misrepresentation of the science by anti-smoking groups is going to result in an increase in smoking -- we are doing public health harm by sensationalizing and distorting the science.

This is not just an issue of scientific integrity (although I would hope that this alone would compel us to present the science as accurately as possible). This is also an issue of causing tangible public health harm by undermining people's perception of the seriousness of the health risks associated with active smoking.

While I certainly appreciate the need to educate the public about the potential harms of secondhand smoke exposure, I do not think it is worth doing so at the expense of distorting their perceptions about the potential harms of smoking. And it is certainly not worth causing more deaths by undermining years of anti-smoking efforts and using tactics that are going to increase smoking.

There's got to be a better way to proceed. I suggest that maybe the place to start is with the truth.

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