Monday, December 18, 2006

IN MY VIEW: Anti-Smoking Movement Has Lost High Ground in Public Debate

By virtue of the widespread, coordinated, and intentional deceptive, misleading, and inaccurate statements being made by anti-smoking groups about the health effects of secondhand smoke, I believe that the tobacco control movement has unfortunately given up the scientific high ground that it previously could argue that it held above its opponents.

And this, I feel, is a great loss.

We used to be able to say, at the very least, that we had the science on our side. We used to be able to say that we had honesty, accuracy, and the truth on our side. We used to be able to say that while our opponents were cherry-picking data, misrepresenting or exaggerating the science, and misleading or deceiving the public by spinning scientific information in a favorable way, we were the carriers of the wholesome, unadulterated truth.

But in our zeal to impress upon the public the immediately deadly effects of secondhand smoke, we have ended up parting with our most prized, cherished, and essential possession: our scientific integrity.

It was one thing when I could say that tobacco control was telling the simple truth and communicating scientific facts accurately to the public while our opponents, including the tobacco companies, were misleading the public. But that is no longer true. Today, it is the case that both sides are playing the game of scientific spin, trying to sway public opinion to their side by distorting or misrepresenting the science as deemed necessary to yield what is perceived as a more effective and favorable public message.

Not everything is black and white, and I guess it doesn't have to be. But it's time to acknowledge that this is now the case with anti-smoking advocates and our opponents. We've borrowed a page from the tobacco industry playbook, and we're now playing on the same ball field, even if our end zone leads to a completely different goal than theirs.

To me, the shame of the whole thing is that we didn't need to play the game this way. We had the truth on our side. The truth could have been enough. But it wasn't good enough for us. We became enmeshed in a group-think mentality that disallowed anything but the continued expansion of our agenda and our public statements towards the extreme. And in a movement that does not tolerate dissent, there is no turning back from extremism.

This has uncomfortably put me in an awkward position. I have to argue that on the one hand, secondhand smoke is hazardous and that a lot of what the anti-smoking groups are telling the public is true. But I also have to argue, on the other hand, that secondhand smoke is not as hazardous as we are saying it is, and that a lot of what the anti-smoking groups are telling the public is not true.

In a world that is increasingly polarized and wants everything to be black and white, my message is a difficult one to deliver and an even more difficult one for people to understand. And importantly, it is also an extremely difficult one to communicate to the media (although I have been doing my best, and with at least some success).

My colleagues don't seem to understand the message, partly because some of them cannot accept the fact that we are indeed deceiving the public. But many of them find no flaws in my arguments and acknowledge that our messages have been misleading; what they cannot accept is not the fact that we are deceiving the public, but the fact that I would choose to write about that.

I have to honestly say that those who have been best able to understand where I am coming from are those who one might see as being on the "other side" of the issue. These are the people who are able to see the subtlety of my argument, to accept that the anti-smoking movement is deceiving the public about some aspects of the science, and to respect, although disagree with my view that the anti-smoking movement is telling the truth about other aspects of the science.

To anti-smoking advocates, there is no middle ground. By virtue of who we are, and by virtue of who the tobacco companies are, everything we say must be correct and everything they or their allies say must be wrong. To align oneself with a position that runs counter to the anti-smoking one, no matter how extreme, is tantamount to working for the tobacco industry. It automatically makes you a tobacco stooge, or at least a tobacco sympathizer. You have officially and irredeemably crossed over to the "dark side."

The rest of the story is that what separates anti-smoking groups from their opponents is not as great a divide as we think it is. The difference may be quantitative, but it is not any longer qualitative. The days when we were the ones with scientific integrity and the tobacco industry opposition was waging a campaign of deception are apparently over.

When we told the public that an acute exposure to secondhand smoke could cause atherosclerosis, we made it clear what we were. Now, we're just haggling over the amount of time that it takes.

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