Wednesday, August 02, 2006

IN MY VIEW: Extremism Has Taken Over the Tobacco Control Movement

Believe me: it'’s not that all of us in tobacco control want to ban smokers from the workplace, take children away from their parents for smoking in their presence, ban smoking everywhere (even in the home), and punish smokers in any way we can find. It'’s not that all of us support the idea of misrepresenting the science in order to promote our agenda. And it'’s not that all of us think that on-screen smoking is the most pressing threat to the well-being of our nation'’s children.

My views on these issues has been made quite clear, but there are many others in the tobacco control movement who feel similarly.

The problem, as I see it, is that we have somehow created a poisoned environment in this movement whereby those who oppose these extremist measures and tactics do not feel safe in speaking out to oppose them.

Any opposition to the anti-smoking agenda or to the tactics used to promote it is seen as heresy. You automatically become a traitor. You risk your funding, your reputation, your career.

So it'’s no wonder that to the best of my knowledge, I'’m the only tobacco control advocate who has publicly spoken out against the treatment of smokers as child abusers, the widespread misrepresentation of science by anti-smoking groups, and the narrow-minded focus of some tobacco control groups that destroys any sense of perspective and divorces the movement from legitimate public health practice. Or that I'’m one of just a few tobacco control advocates who have spoken out against firing smokers from their jobs or not hiring them in the first place, solely because they lawfully smoke in their own homes.

It'’s a shame, because I know that there are a large number of tobacco control practitioners who share my views. I hear from them all the time. But most are reluctant to go public with their views, most likely because of the fear of severe potential harm to their careers.

There are some notable exceptions. For example, I think John Polito is quickly becoming one of the heroes of the tobacco control movement. His courage to challenge the Big Pharma-tied tobacco control establishment and its financially conflicted support of nicotine replacement therapy as the answer to the nation'’s smoking cessation woes is one of the brightest spots in the movement (and anyone who hasn'’t read John'’s commentaries should spend some time over at his site).

But for the most part, the actual views of the mainstream in the tobacco control movement remain hidden behind the threat of McCarthyistic-like retribution for going against the orthodoxy.

I can tell you that my reputation was basically destroyed within the movement not by expressing my views, but my merely being willing to converse with smokers who are trying to protect their basic rights. In fact, even being linked to by smokers'’ rights websites has brought in a flood of phone calls questioning my motives and suggesting that I am discrediting and harming the movement.

I can'’t say that I understand the wisdom of not being willing to even speak to individuals who may oppose anti-smoking initiatives, simply because they are viewed as being '‘the opposition'’. Actually, it is my conversations with smokers, mainly patients of mine, that led me into tobacco control in the first place. How does cutting off respectful dialogue with smokers in any way advance the public health cause?

And how exactly does it discredit the tobacco control movement to have its advocates willing to enter into a dialogue with members of the public? Isn'’t the public who we are supposed to be serving anyway? Might we not learn something valuable by talking to the very people who feel most threatened by our proposed policies? Might it not help us to understand them and where they are coming from?

I certainly have learned a lot from taking the time to listen to my readers. I was not previously aware, for example, of the extent to which many smokers feel persecuted by the continuing barrage of anti-smoking interventions that they see as interfering with their basic rights. Understanding the nature of these feelings can help us in tobacco control, not hurt us.

The failure of the tobacco control movement to be able to control its extremist tendencies is, in my opinion, largely due to the tobacco companies'’ decision to retreat into the shadows in terms of holding us accountable for our public actions and statements. Without the industry to keep us honest, and modest, we have run amok and gone totally out of control.

Ironically, it may have been that the best strategy the tobacco companies could have taken was to retreat into the shadows and let the tobacco control movement destroy itself from its own internal fanaticism. Social movements do have a tendency to move to extremes and often they do implode because of it. Look at the animal rights'’ movement if you want to see a good example of this. That movement had some very important contributions to make, but its insistence on going to the absolute extreme doomed it.

I see the tobacco control movement as being on a collision course with its own implosion. The thing that can save it is reigning in the extremism. Unfortunately, it doesn'’t appear that'’s going to happen. It'’s sad to watch the program move in this direction, but at least I can with some conscience feel that I warned the movement and made some attempt to call attention to the extremism that ultimately is going to greatly undermine our future effectiveness.

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