Friday, October 26, 2007

Anti-Smoking Group Claims that 390,000 Youths Die Each Year Due to Smoking in Movies

The same anti-smoking group which is publicly claiming that 340 young people die each day from smoking is also claiming that 390,000 youths die each year due to smoking in movies.

On its web site, Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trials asks: "Considering the fact that 1,070 youth die each day due to smoking in movies: Should youth be allowed to view films with excessively glamorized tobacco use?"

In other words, Breath California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails is stating to the public that it is a "fact" that "1,070 youth die each day due to smoking in movies." That is: 390,000 youths die each year due to smoking in movies.

The Rest of the Story

This claim is obviously false. There are just over 390,000 total deaths each year attributable to smoking. This means that for the claim to be correct:

1. Every death that occurs due to smoking must occur in a youth. In other words, all 390,000 people who die each year due to smoking are youths.


2. Every person who smokes must smoke because they were exposed to smoking in movies.

The claim also implies that if smoking in movies were eliminated, there would be no more deaths due to smoking.

In fact, there are only 26,000 total deaths due to all causes among youths (ages 1-19) annually in the United States. So it is mathematically impossible for smoking to be a cause of 390,000 annual deaths among youths.

The interesting question to me is whether we can write this off by stating that it is simply a mistake. I tend to think not. First of all, this mistake was pointed out to the anti-smoking group, but they still have not changed the site. Secondly, this errant "fact" is on the very same web page that states: "More than 1,000 teens will start smoking today because of what they saw on screen. 340 of them will die early from a smoking related disease."

In other words, it is very clear that the organization is aware that their claim is false. It is clear that they are aware that 340 young people do not die each day from smoking, but that 340 young people will eventually die from smoking, if the cited research is correct (and I do not believe it is anyway). But stipulating that the research is correct, the organization clearly understands that it is not youth who are dying from smoking.

Why is this important? It is important because it suggests that the organization knows that the public statement they are making is wrong. And this would turn a simple error into what I would call a lie.

To be lying, one could argue that you have to know that what you are stating is incorrect, but state it anyway. And here, we have strong evidence that Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails knows that 390,000 youths do not die each year from seeing smoking in movies. In fact, I'm quite sure that Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails is aware of the fact that 390,000 youths do not die each year. And I'm quite sure they are aware of the fact that the total annual mortality attributable to smoking is on the order of 390,000.

The Encarta dictionary defines lying as "deliberately saying something that is untrue." It appears unquestionable that the group is deliberately making the statement that 1,070 youths die each day from seeing smoking in movies. They put too many statistics on the website to believe that they have simply not thought this out at all. It also seems unquestionable that what they are saying is untrue. It is not true that 1,070 youths die each day from any cause, much less from seeing smoking in movies.

The Encarta dictionary also defines lying as "being deceptive" or "giving a false impression." By that definition, what Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails is doing clearly seems to meet the definition of lying.

I am still willing to give Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails one final benefit of the doubt. I am willing to entertain the remote possibility that somehow, this claim on the website escaped their careful scrutiny and they just made a mistake. If this is the case, however, I would expect that the mistake would be corrected immediately upon finding out about it, which is right now, since they are receiving this blog post by email.

I am willing to give them the weekend to think this over and correct it. But by Tuesday morning, if this is not corrected, I will have no choice but to conclude that this statement is a deliberate attempt to mislead the public by making a claim that the organization knows is not correct. In other words, to conclude that an anti-smoking group is lying to the public.

I have avoided jumping to such a conclusion, despite the widespread untruths being spread by many anti-smoking groups, because I don't want to believe that it is true. But honestly, I'm down to my final breath here. There's only so much that I can rationalize these actions as being some sort of innocent mistake.

Now is the time for a definitive resolution of this. I'll report back on Tuesday morning - hopefully, with the news that the organization has acknowledged and corrected the mistake and apologized for misleading the public.

(Thanks to James Austin for the tip).

Two quick additional points:
1. Because the claim is being made on the web page, and not in some sort of linked PDF document, it should be an easy matter to correct the false and misleading statement.
2. While the "definition" of "young people" may be somewhat subject to interpretation, the definition of "youth" seems far less subject to interpretation. Moreover, even if we consider anyone up to age 50 to be a "youth," which is absurd, the claim being made is still false on its face.

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