Monday, September 11, 2006

Attorneys General Hide Legacy Conflict of Interest in Presenting Data on Effectiveness of Truth Campaign

The Attorneys General of 41 states last week sent a letter to the major Hollywood film studios requesting that they show anti-smoking commercials before any of their movies that depict smoking. Included with the letter was a DVD containing three anti-smoking ads for the studios to use. These ads are from the American Legacy Foundation's "truth" anti-smoking campaign.

In attempting to document the effectiveness of these ads in reducing youth smoking rates, and thus provide a strong rationale for why the studios should show these ads, the Attorneys General cited research which they purported shows that the "truth" campaign substantially reduced rates of youth smoking in the United States:

"Legacy, created by the states' 1998 tobacco litigation Master Settlement Agreement, is a national public health foundation devoted to prevention and cessation of tobacco use. According to peer-reviewed research, 22% of the overall decline in youth smoking during 2000 to 2002 is directly attributable to Legacy's national smoking campaign, known as truth. The study found there were approximately 300,000 fewer youth smokers in 2002 as a result of the truth campaign."

The Rest of the Story

I think the Attorneys General are presenting a premature and unsubstantiated claim that the "truth" campaign explains 22% of the decline in youth smoking between 2000 and 2002. I don't for a second believe that the one study being cited, which didn't even measure the exposure of a single youth to the "truth" campaign, can credibly be used to conclude that the campaign reduced youth smoking and to quantify the size of the effect. Especially when the research itself actually showed that the campaign was not effective.

But that's not the rest of the story.

The rest of the story is that the Attorneys General are hiding an important piece of information that I think is essential to reveal in any credible presentation of the relevant facts: the study they refer to simply as being "peer-reviewed research," was actually paid for, conducted by, and co-authored by the American Legacy Foundation. This represents a substantial and significant conflict of interest that affects the interpretation of the research findings and conclusions and which therefore must be disclosed, not hidden.

How likely do you think it is that the Legacy Foundation would author a study showing that its "truth" campaign was not effective? Knowing the way in which the Foundation has gone about its business, I find it difficult to believe that is even in the realm of possibility. So yes - there is a huge bias inherent in this research study and it most likely is substantial enough to affect the conduct, interpretation, and reporting of the research.

And in fact, I view this bias as being every bit as important as when we anti-smokers insist that tobacco industry funding of research or of authors of research papers be disclosed and argue that this conflict severely biases and discredits the research.

By failing to disclose this conflict of interest, I think the Attorneys General are misleading the studio owners and the public. They are making it sound like the research concluding that the "truth" campaign has substantially reduced youth smoking was some sort of independent, peer-reviewed research, when in fact it was not independent at all: it was conducted by, paid for, and authored by the American Legacy Foundation.

Why is it so important that this information be hidden from the public? When you start seeing continuing efforts to hide information like this, I think it's time to suspect that there is some reason why it needs to be hidden.

And I think there is good reason why it does need to be hidden. This is not research which the Attorneys General nor Legacy apparently want to be subject to any scrutiny. Perhaps they realize that a study which finds no effect of the "truth" campaign at the highest levels of exposure does not bode well for supporting a conclusion that the campaign was effective. Perhaps they realize that if the "truth" comes out about the failure to disclose this conflict of interest, the bias inherent in the study, and the weak evidence upon which their sweeping conclusions are based, the wind will be sucked out of their sails.

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