Wednesday, September 06, 2006

IN MY VIEW: GLOBALink Tobacco Control Forum and Others Like It are Little More than a Platform for Groupthink

When I first joined the GLOBALink tobacco control forum, I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to share in meaningful discussion of tobacco policy issues with public health practitioners from all over the world.

The introductory information sounded wonderful: "GLOBALink is the leading international tobacco control community serving all those active in tobacco-control, and public health. GLOBALink members range from individuals to international organisations worldwide, and include information centres, news editors, cancer societies, health educators, project officers and congress organisers."

In particular, I was interested in the discussion forums, which were advertised as allowing "users to exchange views on a broad range of issues." There are specific discussion forums on secondhand smoke and smoking in the workplace, in which I was particularly interested.

With respect to tobacco control policy discussions in the U.S. in particular, I also signed up for the discussion forums, whose main goal was listed as "To facilitate communication among smokefree advocates." In particular, I was most interested in the tp-talk (i.e., 'tobacco policy' talk) and the localets-talk (i.e., local environmental tobacco smoke) discussion lists.

The Rest of the Story

After my experience with both of these forums, I am of the opinion that they are little other than mechanisms that allow the tobacco control movement to sink into the depths of groupthink. Rather than stimulating discussion, my impression is that these forums stifle meaningful discussion. Instead, they serve to propagate dogma and rhetoric and to silence potential critics of the tobacco control movement's actions, tactics, and established wisdom, no matter how unscientific, flawed, or unjust they might be.

In coming days, I will be exploring how this occurs and what it means. I will be introducing a series of columns on GROUPTHINK in tobacco control.

For now, let me focus on one observation.

In the past several years, I have never seen the anti-smoking movement respond substantively to a critic. Instead, the response is always an ad-hominem attack and discrediting of the critic (not the criticism). My own experience on the GLOBALink and tp-talk list serves demonstrates this pattern.

Why is it that we are unable to deal with criticism or questioning in any way other than attacking the critic or questioner? What could possibly be lost by actually dealing with the substance of the criticism? If the criticism is wrong, then it would seem to our advantage to discredit the argument on its merit. That would put it to rest once and for all.

Note that I'm not talking here about criticism from the tobacco companies or their paid consultants. I'm talking about criticism from groups or individuals who are not affiliated with the industry. And in my case, I'm talking about criticism and questioning from someone within the tobacco control movement.

There's a sure way to shut me up. And that's to show that my argument is wrong. If I'm wrong about something, the last thing in the world I would want is to continue stating it and misleading people.

Throughout my career, I have always prided myself in taking the time to respond to people who expressed disagreement with me. As a public servant at CDC, I didn't just ignore mail from citizens who expressed differing opinions or criticized aspects of my work, I responded to them. And my response was always on the substance of the issue, not the credentials or personal attributes of the individual. We are in the field of public health, and this is the way I think we should treat the public.

I have to say that I was appalled by the way many tobacco control advocates made personal attacks against individuals on these list-serves (GLOBALink was the worst). Again, I'm not talking about attacking tobacco companies or their paid consultants, I'm talking about attacks against individual, private citizens. I don't think that's a proper use of a forum such as this one. And I can tell you that despite the quick effort to get rid of me from the list-serves for expressing disagreement with the dogma of the movement, there was no action to try to quell these derogatory personal attacks.

I am happy to no longer have to be exposed to these elements of the tobacco control groupthink mentality. It makes each day just a little more pleasant.

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