Thursday, December 07, 2006

Minnesota Anti-Smoking Organizations Fail to Respond to Challenge; What May Have Been Simple Mistake Now Appears to Have Become Intentional Deception

Last Tuesday, I issued a challenge to two Minnesota anti-smoking groups to retract or correct inaccurate public statements that they made or were making about the acute health effects of secondhand smoke. This challenge was communicated directly to representatives of both groups via email.

The first challenge, issued to the Association of Nonsmokers - Minnesota, was to retract its fallacious (and absurd) claim, issued in an August 30 press release, that just 30 seconds of secondhand smoke exposure causes damage to the coronary arteries of nonsmokers that is equivalent to the damage suffered by active smokers:

"Research studies have shown that even just thirty seconds of exposure to secondhand smoke can make coronary artery function of non-smokers indistinguishable from smokers."

The second challenge, issued to ClearWay Minnesota, was to retract or correct its fallacious claims that: (1) brief exposure to secondhand smoke causes decreased coronary artery blood flow in healthy young adults; and (2) eating in a smoky restaurant increases the risk of fatal and non-fatal cardiac events in nonsmokers by 30%:

(1) "Blood flow in the coronary arteries is decreased in healthy young adults exposed to secondhand smoke."

(2) "Current scientific data suggest that eating in a smoky restaurant can precipitate myocardial infarctions in nonsmokers and increase the risk of fatal and non-fatal cardiac events in nonsmokers by about 30 percent.

In response to this challenge, neither the Association for Nonsmokers - Minnesota nor ClearWay Minnesota took any action of which I am aware.

Nowhere on the Association for Nonsmokers website can I find a retraction, correction, or apology of any kind for it deceiving the media and potentially the public into believing that the coronary artery function of an active smoker is no worse than that of a nonsmoker who is exposed to tobacco smoke for just 30 seconds. And I am similarly unaware of any subsequent press release issued by the group to correct its original press release.

ClearWay Minnesota did not correct either its inaccurate and deceptive claim that a healthy young nonsmoker exposed to secondhand smoke will suffer a decrease in coronary blood flow or its claim that a nonsmoker who eats in a smoky restaurant will suffer a 30% increased risk of a heart attack. The smoking ban manual retains the original fallacious claims.

The Rest of the Story

It has been 9 days since I issued the challenge, and much longer than that since I first communicated my concern over these inaccurate and misleading claims to these organizations. There has been plenty of time for these anti-smoking groups to correct, retract, or otherwise alter these public claims if they really wanted to do so.

Therefore, I am left in the uncomfortable position of having to infer that the deception of the public about the acute effects of secondhand smoke inherent in these claims is not any more simply an innocent mistake. It appears to me that at this point, this rises to the level of intentional deception of the public.

In other words, it certainly appears to me that both organizations have made an intentional choice, with awareness of my contention of the accuracy of these claims, to retain and stand by their statements.

While I suppose there is a possibility that none of my emails to anyone in either of these organizations went through for some reason, I have no reason to believe that is the case, and I happen to know for a fact that my email to one of the organizations did go through and a key representative of that group was aware of my concerns. I think it is therefore not unreasonable to infer that the retention of these fallacious claims is being done with some intent, and not simply out of a complete lack of awareness that there might be something wrong with these statements.

If this is the case, then I believe that it demonstrates more than simply a mistake, oversight, or carelessness. At this point, it certainly appears that it demonstrates the intention of misleading the public about the health effects of secondhand smoke. This, in my view, is unethical.

As public health organizations, I believe it is our ethical duty to provide the public with accurate scientific information. And telling the public that 30 seconds of secondhand smoke can damage the coronary arteries as much as active smoking, that brief exposure reduces coronary artery blood flow in healthy young adults, and that eating in a smoky restaurant increases your chance of dying from a heart attack by 30% certainly doesn't qualify as communicating accurate scientific information.

Having apparently been made aware of these "mistakes" (giving these groups the benefit of the doubt on their original claims), it appears that the groups have no interest in correcting their statements and made a decision not to do so. To me, this suggests an intent to let these statements stand. The misleading public claims now become intentionally misleading public claims. I am left with no choice at this point but to infer that these groups are intentionally deceiving the public into believing things that are not accurate.

I hate to say it, but isn't this something that we criticize the tobacco companies for doing?

I need to emphasize that the factual inaccuracies we are talking about are not particularly subtle ones. There is not a shred of evidence that 30 seconds of secondhand smoke exposure causes any coronary artery damage, much less damage to coronary artery function that is equivalent to that suffered by a smoker.

There is no evidence that eating in a smoky restaurant increases the risk of a fatal heart attack by 30%. Chronic exposure to secondhand smoke over a lifetime increases heart disease risk by only 30%, so how could exposure for just an hour or so result in that same effect?

And there is evidence that brief secondhand smoke exposure does not reduce coronary artery blood flow in healthy young adults (see the Otsuka et al. study in JAMA, 2001).

That the statements being made by these two anti-smoking groups are deceptive seems to me to be obvious to even someone who is not an expert on the health effects of secondhand smoke like myself. You don't have to be a rocket epidemiologist to know that 30 seconds of exposure can't possibly impair coronary artery function as much as in a chronic, active smoker.

In addition to doing a disservice to the public, which relies upon us for accurate, unbiased, complete, and trustworthy information, this is a major disservice to the anti-smoking movement itself. Because it speaks badly for all of us in the movement. It hurts every anti-smoking organization.

It gives the public reason to question our credibility as a movement. It contributes to the possibility of the public losing faith in our scientific accuracy and integrity.

But most importantly, it means that we don't have scientific accuracy and integrity anymore. This is very sad and discouraging for me. But I won't say that I'm surprised. I've seen enough of the anti-smoking movement's lack of interest in the scientific accuracy of its statements over the past few months to have expected both of these groups to fail to respond to my challenge.

The movement is rapidly losing its scientific accuracy and scientific integrity and frankly, I don't think any group in tobacco control really gives a damn.

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