Wednesday, May 09, 2007

ABC News 20/20 Re-Airs Piece on the 30 Minute Myth

This past Friday night, ABC News 20/20 re-aired a segment on the myth, being spread widely by many anti-smoking groups, that just 30 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure can cause heart disease. I appear in the segment - questioning the assertion that a brief secondhand smoke exposure is sufficient to cause heart disease.

"Dr. Michael Siegel, a leading advocate of bans on smoking in the workplace because of the harm from daily exposure to secondhand smoke, says the 20 or 30 minute claims are ridiculous. 'If someone is just exposed for 30 minutes, it's completely reversible, and it's not gonna cause hardening of the arteries,' Siegel said. Siegel, who helped ban smoking in restaurants and bars, now says his movement is distorting science. 'It has turned into more of a crusade,' Siegel said. 'The cause has kind of taken over.'"

The Rest of the Story

Since this segment first aired almost exactly one year ago, here is what has transpired:

1. The fallacious claims of anti-smoking groups have continued - many groups are still claiming that brief exposure to secondhand smoke causes hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis). Many groups are claiming that secondhand smoke exposure is as harmful as active smoking. Many continue to claim that brief secondhand smoke exposure reduces blood flow to the heart and causes heart damage, and continue to imply that a brief exposure puts even healthy individuals at risk of suffering a heart attack.

2. Most groups have refused to retract or clarify their false and misleading claims.

3. Not a single bit of evidence has been presented to support the contention that a brief exposure to secondhand smoke causes hardening of the arteries or that it can cause a heart attack in anyone other than a person with severe existing coronary artery disease.

4. The problem has spread all the way to the top - the Surgeon General's office itself claimed that brief exposure to secondhand smoke can cause heart disease and lung cancer.

As readers of this blog know, I actually support workplace smoking bans, including bans on smoking in bars and restaurants. I have published articles about the health effects of chronic exposure to secondhand smoke. However, I just do not think that the worthiness of the cause justifies the dissemination of false or misleading information in order to further the cause. I think that we have an ethical responsibility as public health practitioners to accurately communicate the science to the public.

It is sad, discouraging, and disillusioning to me that in the past year, we have made virtually no progress in reclaiming our scientific integrity in the tobacco control movement. The misrepresentation of the science continues as strongly as ever, there have been only one or two organizations that have actually corrected or clarified their misleading claims, and tobacco control groups and advocates continue to refuse to even discuss or address my arguments. Instead, I continue to be personally attacked and excluded from discourse in the movement.

I am glad that 20/20 chose to re-air this segment. Because while the tobacco control movement seems closed off to the idea of communicating the truth to the public, the public is not. If the public starts to put pressure on the tobacco control groups, then I think things may begin to change.

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