Wednesday, October 11, 2006

ANR Calls Helena and Pueblo Junk Science Claims "Crystal Clear Science," While Decrying Economic Impact Studies with Same Methodology

In a press release, Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights (ANR) has concluded that a smoking ban in Pueblo resulted in a 27% decline in heart attacks, even though this decline could well be due to random variation as well as a secular decline in heart attacks that was occurring in Colorado in the absence of smoking bans. ANR called the conclusion that smoking bans in Helena and Pueblo resulted in 40% and 27% declines in heart attacks crystal clear science.

According to the press release: "The [Pueblo] study reaffirms the findings of the recent U.S. Surgeon General'’s Report, "“The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke,"” and the 2003 Helena Heart Study, published in the British Medical Journal, that comprehensive smokefree workplace laws have immediate improvements on community health. ... The Pueblo Heart Study is another report to add to the growing body of scientific evidence illustrating the tangible benefits of smokefree air in the workplace. The science is crystal clear. Smokefree air saves lives and saves money."

The Rest of the Story

I have already explained why I believe that the Helena, Pueblo, and Piedmont study conclusions are essentially junk science.

Briefly, these studies are seriously flawed because they are unable to rule out the reasonable and in fact likely possibility that the observed declines in heart attack admissions were due simply to random variation in the underlying data as well as to a secular trend in declining heart attack admissions during the study period. None of these studies ascertained heart attack admission rates long enough after the implementation of the smoking bans to be able to credibly assess whether it was actually the smoking ban that caused the observed decline in heart attacks or not.

In addition, the claims are scientifically implausible. There is no plausible way that a smoking ban could cause a 40% reduction in heart attacks in six months. Even if all smoking were eliminated completely, we wouldn't expect to observe a 40% decline in heart attacks in six months. So how could a simple smoking ban achieve such an effect?

What is strangely ironic about ANR's rhetoric is that at the same time it uses the Pueblo methodology to conclude that the smoking ban caused a 27% decline in heart attacks, it decries studies using the same methodology which conclude that smoking bans caused an adverse economic impact on restaurants and bars.

Apparently, ANR views the science as "crystal clear" when it supports its agenda, but as "junk science" when it opposes its agenda.

I'm so glad that I did make my exit from ANR, because I would be ashamed to be on the Board of the organization now with this kind of shoddy science coming out of the organization.

It's one thing to support smoking bans on solid scientific evidence of the hazards of secondhand smoke. It's another to widely disseminate shoddy scientific conclusions to the public and base a campaign to promote smoking bans on junk science claims that have no scientific validity.

One could argue that since these studies were published in journals, ANR is justified in touting these shoddy claims. But I would counter that as public health organizations, we have to be capable of evaluating the science ourselves, and of making our own judgments about the validity of the claims we are making.

What is striking to me is the deterioration of the quality of the science coming out of the anti-smoking movement (and I'm not singling out ANR here; it's just one example). Our science has become no better than that commissioned by the tobacco industry. And our standard for judging the quality of science has become whether or not it supports our agenda.

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