Monday, April 16, 2007

IN MY VIEW: Brainwashing in the Anti-Smoking Movement: #1 - Smearing the Opposition

If you take part in secondhand smoke policy training in the tobacco control movement, chances are that you will be taught that all opposition to smoking bans is orchestrated by the tobacco industry, that anyone who challenges the science connecting secondhand smoke exposure and severe health effects is a paid lackey of Big Tobacco, and that any group which disseminates information challenging these health effects is a tobacco industry front group. Consequently, the a chief strategy of tobacco control is to smear the opposition by accusing them of being tobacco industry moles. And in no situation should one say anything positive about an opponent, even if true.

How do I know this?

Because for many years, I was one of the main trainers of tobacco control advocates in the United States. And this is what I taught, because this was what I was led to believe. I attended many conferences and trainings and this is precisely what I was taught. I accepted it for the truth, and passed it along to others.

However, in 1999, a sentinel event in my career occurred which woke me up to the fact that I had in fact been brainwashed to believe these errant ideas. I wrote an article summarizing some of these ideas. In the article, I suggested that if any group opposes a smoking ban, advocates should not discuss the substance of the opponents' claims, but should instead try to discredit them by exposing their ties to Big Tobacco.

I woke up one morning to find that, without my permission, my article had been posted on the internet by Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights (ANR). Something about having my work published on the world wide web for everyone to see awoke me from my brainwashing and snapped me back to reality. Immediately, I realized that I had made a mistake. I called ANR and asked them to please change the article to reflect a clarification, in which I made it clear that I was not in fact accusing certain individuals who had challenged the severity of secondhand smoke health effects of having personally received money from tobacco companies.

To my shock, ANR refused to accede to my request, even though I was the author of the article. They responded that they did not want to say anything even remotely positive about an opponent and that they had to place their own political agenda ahead of my scientific integrity:

"we have concluded that the possible 'clarification' that you and I discussed is simply not feasible. There is a strong concensus that we do not want to post ANYTHING on our web page that can be construed as an apology or as backtracking from the position taken in the paper you wrote. More specifically, XXXXXX has convinced me that, given XXXXX's long history of attacking ETS science, it would be a mistake to state anything that would give him credence. ... I realize that your views on the matter are heart-felt and sincere, and that mere removal of your name from the paper, without more, will not be entirely satisfactory to you. But at this point ANR must put its political credibility ahead of what you consider to be your scientific credibility."

ANR then decided to completely disrespect my authorship rights and my copyright of the article, and to subsume copyright of the article for itself by publishing it on its website without my name. I never gave ANR permission to do this. What I told ANR clearly was that given its refusal to change my article as I re-wrote it, I wanted the article removed from its website. It was only when ANR refused to honor this author's request that I demanded that my name be removed from its website.

(Read the entire story here)

What turned out to be errant information about the nature of opposition to smoking bans was delivered to me via a systematic method of formal trainings in which these ideas were deliberately spread to me and other tobacco control advocates with the purpose of furthering the anti-smoking cause.

These ideas ran counter to my own pre-conceived and firmly held ideas about the nature of opposition to smoking bans and to challenges of the health effects of secondhand smoke. After all, I had many good friends who challenged the connection between secondhand smoke and chronic disease, so I "knew" that not everyone who challenges the science is a Big Tobacco lackey. I also had met many of the opponents of smoking bans and it never occurred to me that they were tobacco moles. Nevertheless, this wisdom was so strongly imparted upon me in the trainings (which were largely delivered by, or influenced by ANR) that I came to believe this information, even though it was at odds with my pre-conceived beliefs.

Importantly, only one perspective on this issue was presented to us in the trainings. There was no room for disagreement or challenge. These ideas were presented as scientific facts, not subject to debate. In fact, if we were to challenge the ideas, the implication was that we - ourselves - might be accused of working for Big Tobacco or receiving secret payoffs.

The most prominent and dogmatic idea presented to us was that "The debate is over." There is no room for questioning of the link between secondhand smoke and chronic disease. Anyone who challenges that link or suggests that it is being exaggerated must therefore be a front for the tobacco industry. No reasonable person - acting of their own accord - would challenge this undebatable science.

This dogma, however, is untrue. While it is certainly the case that most of the scientific challenges to secondhand smoke science came from tobacco industry-funded initiatives, there are a number of scientists and others who have challenged the science but are not paid by Big Tobacco to do so. The American Council on Science and Health, for example, has challenged the strength of the link between secondhand smoke and chronic disease, while acknowledging the acute effects of tobacco smoke. Martha Perske wrote some very well-researched and meticulous critiques of secondhand smoke science. I have myself challenged the claims made by many anti-smoking groups about the acute cardiovascular effects of secondhand smoke. So no - not everyone who suggests that secondhand smoke health claims have been exaggerated is a paid lackey of the tobacco industry.

Moreover, not all opponents of smoking bans are tobacco industry front groups. FORCES International - one of the groups most prominent in opposing smoking bans - is not a Big Tobacco front group, despite continued accusations by ANR that this is the case.

To this day, ANR instructs local anti-smoking groups to suggest to the public that any group opposing a smoking ban is a Big Tobacco front group, even if we can't prove it: "Advocates should shine the light on these associations and connections to the tobacco industry. See our factsheet on how to follow the money to find industry connections in your community. There isn't always a "smoking gun" linking the tobacco industry to these groups, either due to lax local campaign finance laws, or money getting funneled through third parties. Often we don't find out until years later that the tobacco industry was funding opposition activities. In any case, showing that suspicious groups are pulling out all the familiar tricks will encourage people to take the Big Tobacco message delivered by these groups with a grain of salt."

ANR continues to claim that any scientist who finds no relationship between secondhand smoke and chronic disease is not legitimate: "All major governmental and public health agencies and legitimate researchers have clearly affirmed that secondhand smoke kills."

In other words, if I conduct a study and it fails to show a significant relationship between secondhand smoke and chronic disease, then all of the sudden, I have automatically become an illegitimate scientist.

Speaking of illegitimate scientific claims, keep in mind that ANR claims that active smoking is no worse than 30 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure in terms of the amount of heart damage that it causes and that this brief exposure to secondhand smoke deprives the heart of life-giving blood: "Just thirty minutes of exposure to secondhand smoke can cause heart damage similar to that of habitual smokers. Nonsmokers' heart arteries showed a reduced ability to dilate, diminishing the ability of the heart to get life-giving blood."

If one conducts a search of the ANR Tobacco Industry Tracking Database, looking for evidence that Michael Siegel is a Big Tobacco front, you will find an entry that describes my May 2006 appearance on 20/20, during which I suggested that it is inaccurate to claim that 30 minutes of secondhand smoke can cause heart disease. You will also find a link to my blog being quoted by Jacob Sullum in his article "Second Thoughts About Tobacco Tar." Furthermore, there is a link to my being quoted in an Inside Bay Area article in which I question the need to ban all outdoor smoking.

While it is great that ANR is providing these important links, the fact that they are provided under the tobacco industry tracking database seems to me to suggest to the public that I am somehow affiliated with the tobacco industry. I can understand ANR linking to these documents, but it is beyond me why such documents would appear in a tobacco industry tracking database. In what way is tracking me related to tracking the tobacco industry? The implication, of course, is that there is indeed a connection there, and I'm sure that my appearance in the database has given reason to some members of the public who do not know me to suspect that I am a tobacco industry mole.

My point is simply that there is a systematic effort to try to put doubt in the minds of the public about the legitimacy and integrity (and financial independence) of anyone who expresses any opposition to a proposed smoking ban or who in any way challenges anti-smoking groups' claims about the health effects of secondhand smoke, despite the fact that not everyone who opposes smoke-free policies or challenges the health claims of anti-smoking groups is in fact on the tobacco payroll. This means that some individuals and groups are going to end up being falsely accused.

Given the indoctrination that takes place in the tobacco control movement, it is perhaps not a surprise that no less than five of my colleagues have recently accused me of taking tobacco money or implied that I am being paid by tobacco companies. The brainwashing that takes place is so strong that some anti-smoking advocates lose their ability to distinguish between a tobacco mole and a dedicated and committed, long-time tobacco control advocate.

Brainwashing is defined as "persuasion by propaganda." Propaganda is defined as "ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause." Thus, brainwashing is a systematic, deliberate attempt to further one's cause by persuading people via spreading ideas and allegations.

There is little question in my mind that there has been a systematic and deliberate attempt to promote the anti-smoking cause by spreading what turns out to be disinformation about the opposition to smoking bans and the challenges to secondhand smoke science. It is my opinion that many tobacco control advocates are indoctrinated with these ideas and beliefs and that this indoctrination may result in the implantation of beliefs that run counter to an individual's pre-conceived or natural ideas and conceptions. In addition, an environment has been created in which one cannot challenge the ideas being presented because by definition, those who challenge the establishment are viewed as being traitors to the movement. Thus, not only is brainwashing occurring, but it is a self-perpetuating type of process which feeds itself by placing a nearly insurmountable barrier to anyone challenging it.

I was able to overcome my "brainwashing," but it took a lot of courage to do so, and a lot of risk to my career. I paid a heavy price for breaking out of the mold into which I had been cast. It shattered my career in tobacco control. But at least it didn't shatter me, and the person who I really am.

I am not about personal attacks on individuals. I am not about making undocumented allegations and claims about people that could damage their reputations unfairly if they end up being untrue. I am not about denigrating the character of other researchers based on the opinions which they may express about secondhand smoke. I am not about making undocumented accusations against groups which may oppose policies that I support.

This, unfortunately, is what the anti-smoking movement has become. So be it, but don't try to indoctrinate yet another generation of public health advocates with this propaganda.

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