Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Commentary in Epidemiologic Perspectives & Innovations Highlights Threats to Science from Anti-Tobacco Activism

In his commentary published today in the journal Epidemiologic Perspectives & Innovations, Dr. Carl Phillips, a professor at the University of Alberta and an editor of the journal, warns that "Anti-tobacco activism may be hazardous to epidemiologic science." The commentary accompanies two pieces - one by me and one by Dr. James Enstrom - which highlight the anti-tobacco movement's attack on researchers who dared to publish findings which could be construed as unfavorable to the movement. Dr. Phillips adds his own story: he, too, was ex-communicated from the tobacco control movement because he suggested that a harm reduction strategy, rather than a risk elimination strategy, be considered.

Speaking about all three cases, Dr. Phillips writes: "The three cases (including my own experience, described below) involve scientists whose careers are substantially devoted to the anti-smoking cause, but who have been viciously attacked by anti-tobacco advocates for not adhering 100% to the party line. These attacks are examples of the threat to honest science by powerful organized interests, a threat to which the science of epidemiology seems particularly vulnerable [3,4]."

Importantly, my case adds an example of someone who has not received funding from tobacco companies but has been treated in the same way as those who have. As Dr. Phillips points out: "Many of the attacks against Enstrom and me, though clearly directed at the content of our research, have been rationalized based on it being partially funded by unrestricted grants from the tobacco industry. The evidence that this is a rationalization can be found in the similarly vehement attacks on those who defied the orthodoxy but have not received industry funding, including Siegel."

Speaking about my own case, Dr. Phillips writes: "The accompanying article by Michael Siegel [1] recounts a particularly egregious misrepresentation of epidemiologic research by self-styled public health advocates. This might not be considered newsworthy, except for the fact that Siegel – a respected researcher and writer, and well-known anti-smoking advocate in his own right – actively attempted to correct the misrepresentation and was attacked for this. Indeed, Siegel's defenses of epidemiologic evidence, which anti-tobacco advocates preferred to ignore or misrepresent, resulted in him being "excommunicated" (there is really no other word that captures it) from the anti-smoking activists' inner circles." ...

"Readers of the Siegel article may find his story less surprising, given how common it is for activists of various stripes to casually misconstrue epidemiologic findings to support their political ends. But the full story is really more disturbing than that: Almost no other researchers have joined Siegel in pointing out the errors in the claims he brought to light, even though the claims in question were not remotely plausible. Moreover, respected organizations that are the face of epidemiology to most of the public (in particular, the major player of the Enstrom story, the American Cancer Society (ACS)), organizations that claim scientific authority, have joined the chorus that makes the ridiculous claim that Siegel has critiqued. (Several new chapters of this story have been written since Siegel finalized this manuscript [5-7], and they can be found in his blog [8], which is the best source of honest, scientifically-sophisticated, up-to-date analysis on matters related to tobacco policy.)" ...

"Readers interested in further distortions of science relating to ETS research should read Siegel's blog entries that mention the Helena, Montana study or the recent reports from New York. It was claimed by authors who positioned themselves as epidemiologists that ETS exposure in public places causes 10%, or perhaps 40%, or maybe even 60% of all heart attacks. It is difficult to understand how such patently absurd claims can be made without an outcry from legitimate scientists."

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